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To go to the moon

The title of this piece, and of my work in progress, is taken from graffiti painted on the western side of the Berlin Wall, behind the Reichstag: “It should be easier to go to your neighbour than to go to the Moon”.

Two days after seeing this slogan, by pure chance I walked through Checkpoint Charlie from East to West Berlin in the evening of 9 November 1989, alongside the first two East Berliners allowed through after the announcement that the border would be opened. Blissfully unaware of what was happening around me, I walked through Checkpoint Charlie into a crowd of thousands. My parents saw me on the TV news in NZ…

The raw communal emotion of that night profoundly affected me – and still does. Why? For more than a decade (1989-2001) I lived a schizophrenic life, half in NZ, half in Germany…

I phoned Martin, and invited him to join me at the Checkpoint. He, for reasons unfathomable to me at the time, resisted my entreaties. Later, in his apartment at 4-30am as I packed my bag for my 6am train south, I was trying to convey to him the excitement of the night the city was celebrating. Suddenly he rushed off into the bathroom and threw up – he’d drunk all of two bottles of wine we’d bought to share in our last night together!

I had promised my new German girlfriend, harp-player Camilla, that I would return to Bavaria for her scheduled concert the next day. On the train I related the night’s events into a cassette recorder – a letter home to my family. At one point, the emotion of it all suddenly enveloped me – I felt as if a golf ball had planted itself in my throat, stopping me from speaking altogether. I sat, alone in that compartment, silent, for at least 15 minutes – with tears streaming down my face.

After that night I would tell anyone who’d listen about my experience – but after a few years there wasn’t anyone left to tell – or perhaps, no longer the same urgency to tell it. For possibly a decade, I’d made no mention of it to anyone… But then at a screen industry Christmas party (Dec 2008) I met some younger German people working with DocNZ, and whiskey in hand, I started again. My story elicited the same riveted attention, the same enthusiasm from Diana, Jessica and Loubna as ever – but also a lot more laughs. I realised that I was unintentionally focussing more on the absurdist moments in the story of that night…

It had never occurred to me that this story might make a film – I’ve spent my career in fictional drama, directing live theatre and being a First Assistant Director on cinema and TV shoots. In my fledgling writing for the screen all my thoughts have been in fiction terms… But this trio convinced me to plan a doco.

Then in Feb 09, just days before the application deadline, Alex Lee asked me if I was applying for the Goethe Documentary Scholarship. But I don’t qualify, I said. Yes, you do! he responded. Talk to Diana… She explained that the phrase “under 30” (which I’m definitely not!) on the website was a mistake, they meant “over 30…” With much help, I managed to write an urgent submission, and was selected amongst the ten people to pitch for the Goethe Scholarship in the DocNZ 2009 Summit.

As a complete novice to pitching, it was simply a terrifying experience! Standing up and telling a film cast and crew of 50+ and sometimes hundreds of extras what to do, and when, is a breeze in comparison! At midnight the night before, I realised my planned pitch was 10 minutes long instead of the limit of 5 minutes max. Instead of watching the serious pro pitchers the next morning, to pick up some hints, I was still rewriting, cutting, in panic… ending up with 4’30” to 4’45”, I reckoned. And when I arrived at the venue shortly before the Goethe pitch session, I was told that instead of being private – just the four guest judges from Germany, the moderator and us – the summit audience had asked to witness our session as well, they’d so enjoyed the morning’s pro pitch event! Talk about pressure…

By the time it was my turn, 9th out of the 10,, my mouth was so dry I felt I could not enunciate my words properly. Then when I finished my spiel, I realised I’d never heard either the 5-minute cut-off bell, nor the 4-minute warning bell! My God, I thought, I was so nervous that I’ve spoken so fast – to four judges for whom English is a second language – that they won’t have understood a word!

In my preparation, I’d considered the likelihood that they’d ask if we candidates spoke any German. I’d thought about trying to reply in my very basic few phrases that, yes, but only one month in a language school’s worth, but that unlike most people, I could speak more than I could understand… Then I decided that would probably be simply embarrassing. Just say it in English. But they never asked any of the previous 8 candidates that question at all. So it was a sudden shock when the Goethe boss, the lovely Christoph Mücher, asked that very question. I panicked for a second, then started to blurt out an answer. A few words in I realised that I was speaking (crap) Deutsch! Too late to stop! I stumbled through, thinking that if I hadn’t lost them already earlier, I surely had now!

Afterwards, people, even strangers, were incredibly congratulatory and encouraging. I began to realise I really wanted that scholarship! But sadly, it was not to be. I was told by a whisper that I’d missed out by a whisker (to Julie Hill, who has used it well) – but I’ve no idea how true that whisper is!

However, two of the German judges were kind enough to speak with me afterwards, and to encourage me, as were Diana Kluge and Jessica Keller, now both back in Germany and actively involved in helping me with the project. The German and the Kiwi doco people I spoke with, then and later, all encouraged me, but emphasising that, while using the 1989 experience as the spine of the film, I must make it personal – to focus the doco on “the Kiwis in Berlin”.

Months of learning, and rewriting proposals followed, with the idea that the 20th anniversary celebrations in November 2009 should be the starting point for the film’s story. Not being interested in pushing myself into the story too strongly, and desperately not wanting it ever to appear like a vanity project or ego trip, I wrestled with the experts’ advice… And there was no obvious candidate for producer nor finance to make the November trip on the horizon! With only weeks to go, and having taken more than a month to get to talk to my potential dream exec producer, who then wanted another proposal rewrite, I’d basically given up any hope of getting to Berlin for Nov 9.

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