1. Styx revolves around Rike, a 40-year-old emergency doctor from Europe, who fulfills a life-long dream to sail on her own to Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean. However, this dream trip takes a turn for the worse, when, after a storm, she is confronted with an overcrowded refugee ship in distress. How did you come up with this story and how did you develop the characters?
9 years ago, we read an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung where a German skipper was thrown in the same situation as our main character, Rike. He found himself on high seas next to a refugee boat, and he was alone.
Styx is based on the real experiences of sailors in similar situations - we talked to them, as well as to NGOs, survivors (of journeys to Europe by boat), members of the coast guard, psychiatrists who treat traumatized people after their horrible journeys, and to government officials. Over almost seven years, we researched the strategies of the European Union’s border protection on the Atlantic Coast of West Africa, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic Sea.
Styx depicts a western perspective. It is clearly a film about ourselves - the members of the small white, western, self proclaimed “first“ world - and our role in a worldwide human tragedy.
Rike, the protagonist of Styx, is our one-to-one representative of this privileged, shielded community. She demonstrates the code of practice of her world as it is executed day by day right now. She is capable and privileged among many things; she knows the systems and codes, and it is crucial to make her the witness of this horror.
She is no heroine and no savior.
Award-winning actress Susanne Wolff, herself a blue-water sailor with an International Certificate of Competence, encapsulates the main character’s central qualities.
Her counterpart is Kingsley, a boy who is forced much too early to leave his childhood behind, and has to flee his home and challenge his luck on a dangerous journey into the unknown, like so many kids do.
Leading man, Gedion Odour Wekesa, is a schoolboy from Kibera/Nairobi. He takes acting classes as part of the ONE FINE DAY organization’s funding program, and beat 40 other boys to win the role.
2. What brought about the idea to tackle such difficult subject matter as migration and the European refugee crisis in a feature film? What was the process of writing the script, and was it difficult to obtain funding for this project?
Migration is a main challenge of our time.
There are more people fleeing today than there were in the 20th century as a consequence of the 2nd World War. The reasons are various and complex. It is not up to us to judge them. Sadly the current dialogue is poisoned by hysteria, xenophobia, and exploitation.
We wanted to create a communication tool to unlock empathy and solidarity. Film has the ability to do that. Therefore, we chose to make this movie.
The writing process was intense because history was always one step ahead. So many things happened during the development: the Arab Spring; the fall of Gaddafi; the wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; ISIS becoming a global threat. Through it all, famine, plague, and violence continued to force people to leave their homes and seek shelter.
It’s a tough theme and it took us a long time to convince people to invest.
3. In this film you worked with refugees who had themselves made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. How did you go about casting them and what was your experience working together?
It goes without saying, that in order to do justice to the people who experienced the tragedy, it is vital to include them in the creative process.
In Malta, we sought out people who succeeded in the dangerous crossing.
We got in contact and interviewed them. We were astounded when they said they would like to play a part in order to tell their own stories.
It was our attempt to use a semi-documentary style.
Every character in Styx embodies her/his/their actual profession: The firefighters in the beginning of the movie for example are real firefighters. The soldiers on the coastguard ship are real soldiers. We wanted to tell Styx in an authentic way, since this is the reality of these people.
4. Your film not only deals with the current issue of the refugee crisis, but also with general philosophical questions (as you once put it in an interview) such as “who are we?,” “who do we want to be?,” and “who do we have to be?” How do you (attempt to) answer these questions in your own life and in your work?
Kant’s categorical imperative is a guideline for the basics of living together that “you” and “me” can become “us”. Ideally this “us” does not stop at color, race, provenance, status, religion, or sex.
5. About 90% of the film was shot on open water. What did this mean for you and your crew and how did you prepare for and realize this difficult feat?
We could not rely on any experiences of other directors. Nobody has shot an entire feature film on open water before. For that reason, we had to become pro’s on all levels: professional skippers defining the methods of how to shoot while sailing. The project was a real challenge for the whole crew in many aspects, psychologically and physically . Sitting 40 days on a 40 foot yacht with the core crew (10 persons maximum), there is no corner for privacy. You have no other option but to get to know each other very well.
6. Since its release, Styx has received many accolades at some of the world’s leading film festivals. Were you surprised by this overwhelmingly positive response? Has this impacted your career trajectory and perhaps also how you will approach your next project?
We were very impressed that so many people could connect with Styx and share their empathy! There was a big demand for discussions after the screenings. The Q&A’s often lasted up to two hours. It was not surprising. Actually, it was just additional proof that there is a need for political movies.
This was a very encouraging experience to stick to the themes of our times.
7. Now that you are the filmmaker-in-residence at Deutsches Haus at NYU, how do you plan on spending your time here in New York? Are there any particular things you plan to do or places you would like to see? Will you be working on a new project while you are here?
Living here is an incredible, intense experience. This feeds us.
Let’s see where it leads us.