Interview: Max Zähle Discusses His Oscar Nominated Short Film ‘Raju’

By  · Published on February 20th, 2012

Max Zähle’s academy award nominated short film, Raju, wasn’t exactly easy to make. The director’s thesis film involved over a year of research and filming in a land where no man has gone before: Kolkata (aka Calcutta). The problematic logistics of shooting there speaks for itself, as do the joys. It’s undeniable that Zähle’s film is nothing short of beautiful, and a part of that beauty comes from the gritty, crowded, and beautiful streets of the city.

At the heart of Raju is a moral dilemma, one that sparks conversation. To not spoil what the core conflict of the story is, most of my conversation with Zähle, who was on a train leaving the Berlin Film Festival as we spoke, focused on his own story.

Here’s what Max Zähle had to say about the structure film school provides, the benefit of working as PA, and the nostalgic feeling of hearing a film run through a camera:

Congratulations on your nomination. It’s well-deserved.

Thank you very much.

I saw your reaction video. It was clearly a nice surprise.

Well, yeah! [Laughs] I mean we were standing on the streets of Kolkata shooting with nothing. We had a couple of film guys standing around shooting through that humidity of 100%, and we were never thinking about the Oscars while shooting the film. This is probably the biggest payday we could ever imagine! [Laughs] I mean, it’s an Oscar nomination, you know? It’s crazy.

When the idea for the project started coming together, were you pretty aware of how difficult it would be to shoot in Kolkata?

Yeah, especially if you don’t have much money. I don’t know if it’s true, but people were saying we were like the first student film team from the Western Country to shoot film in Kolkata, and I believe it. There’s no infrastructure for a film without much money, you know what I mean? We really had to find our own path and team. We couldn’t go to anyone to ask for advice or anything. We are the ones people are going to have to go to for advice! [Laughs] We had to find it on our own, and it really took a while and it was a challenge. It took a long time to prepare everything. At the end, naturally it worked out.

I’d imagine you saw that challenge as kind of exciting, right?

For me, it is! For me and the producer, Stefan Gieren, both of us… it was the first time, for our film school, to allow their students to shoot outside of Europe. I just wrote a five sentence synopsis for the story, and they read it and said, “Yeah, you need to do this.” They just allowed us to do it because I was a director and Stefan was a producer. I had shot a short film before this, which was quite challenging as well, and Stefan was a producer. As a team and the topic, that allowed us to shoot the film. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have been allowed to go. It was much more than just exciting; it was a huge risk and a huge challenge to shoot the film.

Have you graduated film school already?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. That was my thesis film and we had the world premiere a year ago. I’m already working on my next project. I’m not a student anymore.

Did you enjoy film school?

Did you go to film school?

I haven’t, but most filmmakers I talk to tell me not to go [Laughs].

[Laughs] Yeah, I would probably say the same. Film is film. It’s not like architecture, something you have to learn. I think it’s always in you, if you wanna do films. Film school gives you structure, in a way. I would definitely tell people to go to film school. You don’t learn making films, but you get a structure, and it’s up to you to use it or not use it. I enjoyed being in film school because I was able to concentrate on one project, but I don’t think anyone would go there and learn how to direct [Laughs]. You know, because it’s always you doing it. Now, I don’t regret it, at all. It brought me to where I am now, so how could I regret it?

I read that you worked as PA and got into editing, but then went back to school. What made you go back?

Because of that. I just wanted to drop out of work and really… I didn’t make money at that time and had minuses on my account! [Laughs] I just wanted to concentrate on narrative storytelling and tell a film the best way I could. I wanted to concentrate for two years, so that’s why I dropped out of work. I still feel it was the best thing I could have done.

How was it working as a PA?

For me, being a PA, you’re not responsible for too many things, so you’re able to watch real directors and real DPs shooting their films. You can watch them out of a safe perspective, in a way. You can watch them, and that was the real film school I went through. That’s how I learned what’s going on around directing. It’s not just the director; it’s the whole team and what’s going on in the back. I couldn’t have done Raju if I didn’t have a great PA or manager, all the people around me. They made the film with me, and I really learned about their jobs.

What led you to Kolkata?

The research led us. It’s just one of the hot spots in the world. They opened the doors for us and led us to Kolkata. We chose Kolkata because it happened there, and we wanted to go to a place where it happened. I hadn’t been to Kolkata before, and now I can say it’s such a great city. You read so many bad things about that city, but it’s so great.

Were you delighted when you got there about how cinematic it is?

It’s so cinematic. We prepared to react to what was going on, because it’s not that easy to put on a camera and get the shot, and you have to really work for that. It’s so beautiful, powerful, and rich. You can’t make it up there, it’s just there.

You used super 16mm, right? Why not go with digital?

We just trust that material. With the 100% humidity and no film shop [there], I had a long discussion with the DP. I just love the grainy, dirty, Super 16mm… you know, we wanted that documentary style, and it felt like the right thing to do.

Did you shoot any of your music videos on digital?

Yeah, I shot this one, you know the one where they’re playing tennis?

Yes, I watched that one.

Yeah, we shot that one digitally, actually. We also shot the stop-motion one digitally. You know, because you don’t have much money with the music videos… there was one I shot on Super 8, the one with the children in the beginning. I prefer film, to be honest. I feel like the concentration of the team is more… I mean, when you hear the film running through the camera, it’s a nostalgic feeling.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.