By way of campaigns for Porsche, Volkswagen, ARAG, or other big players, Lukas was able to put his energetic storytelling on display. His production house, Peoplegrapher, has become one of the relevant names within the German advertising industry and seems to be far from the end of the road. But with his latest passion project “Pheonix”, its production and the subject documented show that there are more important things to Peoplegrapher’s journey than the next big campaign.
The roughly six-minute-long film follows three young women, Sohaila, Zahra, and Zeinab, all living in the Malakasa refugee camp near Athens. It portrays their struggle for equal rights, a life in freedom, and centers around boxing as their outlet. Produced in cooperation with the NGO “Yoga & Sports with Refugees” under the direction of Estelle Jean and Nina de Winter, and accompanied by photographers Philipp Romppel and Steve Marais, Lukas headed off to Athens.
The film was originally set out to be a vignette, a part of a long-term project about communities and friendship all across the world. But then, just a few days before the team arrived, the news suddenly was flooded by the womens’ protest in Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the home country of the three girls they were about to meet. Witnessing conflicts between cultures and hearing the stories of what the girls had endured – even having to hide from the police themselves – made the group decide to step away from their original plan and treat the film as its own project.
And still, despite all of those reasons, it is important to Lukas to create a film that is positive in its core message, a film that captures the immense will of the three girls to lead a better life. And ultimately how sport helps them to look ahead.
“Keeping and following a plan in mind doesn't invariably translate into successfully achieving the underlying goal. Abandoning the plan can lead to unexpected opportunities for encounters.”
If you now compare your expectations against what you experienced there, where are the differences or where do you say, ”that's what I thought before and that's now completely changed”?
There's one point that I underestimated. How digitally connected you are. Everybody knows everything. It's all the same, and yet so different. In countries where women have far less rights – they're not allowed to go to school, they have to remain covered, they're not allowed to do anything - everyone has a smartphone. They love to listen to Selena Gomez, follow her life on social media, which is rather “liberal” most of the time. And on the other hand, you have a father, who is conservative, has a completely different viewpoint and does not agree with anything his daughter might see online. Then, unfortunately, there is also the issue that women simply have a completely different standing in society than they do here.
I guess somehow I was aware of that, but to realize this in conversation with the girls is something completely different. Imagine yourself looking through a window, which at that moment is your phone, from which you see the entire world, but you are trapped in that space. I think that makes it even worse. This person, this woman, knows how life could be elsewhere and she can't change it.
There was also a part in the film where she addresses exactly that. “Women should be treated equally.” Would you say that this is actually a certain consensus among the young women in the camp?
Of course - I've only seen this one perspective. I can’t give you a generalized answer, but I simply can't imagine women say, “I want to have fewer rights”. And to my perception, that was also the consistent opinion inside the camp. How is it in Afghanistan at the moment? I don't know. I can only imagine that if you are a woman and you are denied the rights you had two years ago, that you don't want that. That's what the girls are campaigning for, that it has to change. That they are allowed their basic human rights.
Is this also the message you want to send with your film?
Well, I don't think you can go into a project like this and say "I can change the world". I think you always have to start by taking small steps. For example, what Estelle and Nina are doing with their organization. They give kids their own tasks by doing sports together. For me, that was something I wanted to support. You probably know it yourself. If you have a bad day and jog for half an hour, you suddenly have a completely different, more positive perspective and interpret things differently. And that's what we witnessed during our stay. Girls who are shy,15, 16 years old. But then you train with them, see how they fight with each other. Suddenly, they have such power, they just open up.
This opportunity, to build up your self-confidence through sports, to be able to defend oneself, changes things. That was the reason for me to say: Okay, let's make a film which draws attention to the fact that these possibilities exist. In the best case, we support the organization financially and have thus turned a small adjusting screw in this whole system.
But of course, the film doesn't focus on the organization; it's about Sohaila, Zahra, and Zeinab, and it shows how much more beautiful life can be when you create opportunities. If you change one little thing.
You walked into the camp, passing people who have their gun at the ready, you've snuck your cameras in there. What was it like to start shooting?
We arrived and I didn't even know if I was allowed to film or not. Obviously you can't just hold a camera into somebody's face and say, “I'm filming here now.”
All of a sudden you hear a little argument somewhere; loud talking. You don't even know what's happening right now. You don't understand a word while you're standing there with your camera. It just was a strange situation to us and I would say we never really got used to it. There never was a moment where I would have said, “I feel safe shooting here now.” I never felt one hundred percent comfortable. It was always kind of weird.
In hindsight, I think it's a miracle that we were able to shoot at all. During the last day, another team from Afghanistan was kicked out and the police were also looking for us. We hid in a container, waiting until the security changed shifts. It was crazy. The girls took our backpacks with the cameras because they would most likely not be checked and we then walked out. I was scared. I was shaking. The girls on the other hand, were super, super calm. They've experienced so much shit in their lives, they've walked past so many police. At that moment I thought to myself, “Okay, you're in a refugee camp, you've filmed material as a German in Greece, and the police catch you. What actually happens now?”
Would that be something you would tell someone who wants to approach a project like this?
Well, I think the most important message is not to approach things too cerebrally, but to really just do it. Let yourself fall into a project a little bit. And as much as we all curse social media sometimes, it's just the tool to connect yourself with everybody else in this world. And if you say you want to shoot a documentary in South America about hip-hop culture in - what do I know - Mexico, you're three clicks away. All you have to do is type in a hashtag. You can find people right away. You find a flight, fly there, and shoot. Maybe it won't be good. But then the next one will be good. The important thing is that you do it. I've made so many movies that turned out crappy and still I keep going because you just can't stop. And that doesn't mean you don't prepare, but that you don't get in your own way because you're just too stuck in your own head.