The Wonder of Living: An Interview with Wim Wenders and Mary Zournazi

by Andrew Marzoni

Wim Wenders is a German filmmaker who has received international acclaim for dozens of films, including Kings of the Road (1976), Paris, Texas (1984), Wings of Desire (1987), and most recently, Pina (2011), a 3D documentary about dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch. Wenders currently serves as President of the European Film Academy, and teaches cinema at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg. His latest feature film, Every Thing Will Be Fine, will be released later this year. Mary Zournazi is an Australian philosopher and Senior Lecturer of Sociology at the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, University of New South Wales. The author of several books, her research is focused on such diverse areas as language, politics, culture, emotion, migration, belonging, identity, peace, cinema, psychoanalysis, philosophies of hope, postcolonial theory, and the sociology of images.

In August 2013, Wenders and Zournazi published Inventing Peace: A Dialogue on Perception, a collaborative book which documents years of correspondence and conversation about peace — an attempt at what Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, to whom the book is dedicated, refers to as a ‘genuine dialogue.’ Wenders and Zournazi draw on works of philosophy, literature, visual art, and cinema to consider how peace may be achieved through a change in human perception, and how new media technologies – the agents of perception – can be used to heal a world overcome by violence and war, ego and illusion.

Like its subtitle suggests, Inventing Peace is very consciously a dialogue between Mr Wenders and Dr Zournazi. As you point out, this dialogue began through a series of ‘mailversations’: conversation conducted through electronic means. Much has been said about the ways in which new media technologies bring us closer together while also creating more interpersonal distance and isolation. On a practical level, how did this distance affect your dialogue, your collaboration? And how do you think your ideas about peace were themselves influenced by this means of communication?

Mary Zournazi: Yes. Initially our conversations were via email. In a way, emails allowed this book to happen – the ability to communicate across the globe through a means that feels both up-close and faraway. Although, the email letters or ‘mailversations’ themselves didn’t necessarily influence the questions of peace that we were addressing, they did structure our means of communication and relationship and therefore ‘our first meetings.’ But what worked best for us in the development of our ideas and writings was our face-to-face encounters with each other. Our time together in the Mojave desert and our various meetings across the world helped to flesh out our ideas and make them more ‘real.’

So, although I think that the technologies of the internet aided the development of our book, my belief is that with any new media technologies ‘meetings’ require encounters with each other. The criteria for these encounters are the ‘presence’ of others: new technologies may enable this type of presence and it is through technologies that we can share more and express more than ever before. Wim’s work with 3D cinema is an example of creating this presence through the new technologies of cinema.

But to answer the latter part of your question in a slightly different way: in the book we discussed the potential for technology and its relationship to peace; how to consider the question of technology as a question of creation rather than destruction.

Wim Wenders: On the other hand, let's face it: ‘distance’ cannot be eliminated by technology. On the contrary, it creates new kinds of distances. If you sit eye-to-eye with somebody, ‘person to person,’ you get other results than via Skype, email or any of the so-called ‘social media.’ (I think they got their name in order to hide right from the beginning that they're downright antisocial...) Of course, it helps, and it is efficient sometimes to rely on technology, but I would never trust a relationship built on that. If Mary had not appeared in person in front of that radio station in Sydney, when she happened to hear me voice my anger about the American invasion of Iraq, if she had just sent me an email, we would have never made this book. That book was born eye-to-eye. As I lived in Los Angeles then, and as Australia is far away, it was helpful, afterwards, to continue via the internet. But that, too, would not have produced the book. Inventing Peace came about because we travelled, and tried to meet up in remote places, and sit at one table and come to terms with our ideas face to face.

Cinema plays a significant role in your dialogue — not only in Mr Wenders’s reflections on his own films, but in discussions of the ‘transcendental’ cinema of filmmakers like Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Theodore Dreyer. However, as you acknowledge, the history of cinema is closely intertwined with the history of war. Even 3D technology, which has the capability to ‘actually make us see differently again’ (and which Mr Wenders utilises to brilliant effect in Pina), has been primarily used by Hollywood to reproduce images of violence and war. Why, then, in today’s expansive media landscape should we continue to look to cinema to find peace?

MZ: I think cinema is a medium in which we can learn something new; in a way, the idea of perception we speak about is how to really look at someone or something and how to ‘see’ to help apprehend the world in a new fashion. Cinema is a medium in which the apprehension of reality is still possible ... Again, I think Wim’s pioneering work with Pina and now his new film, Everything Will Be Fine, is an attempt to apprehend this kind of reality and perception.

WW: The question is totally justified: Why should we continue to look to cinema to find peace, if in its history it has invested so much more in the depiction of war and violence. And of course as contemporary movies goes: the largest part of it is not at all interested in reality, on the contrary, it is a rigid negation of anything that has anything to do with our lives. Most of cinema today creates other worlds and does not reflect ours. (Or only very indirectly.)

However, I don’t think that Mary’s claim that cinema is still a medium in which the apprehension of reality is possible belongs to the realm of wishful thinking. Potentially, cinema does have that access to reality! It’s just that most of the entertainment industry today doesn’t really think that there is much profit in the pursuit of reality. Which is not new. Movies were divided from the beginning in two camps: the reality-enhancing fraction and the reality-avoiding one. I think that the massive comeback of documentaries is a great sign of a backlash against the tide of fantasy fiction films. And these films, along with some reality-driven fictional films, have a deep care for truth and justice. Potentially, a film can still place you, the spectator, in front of somebody’s life, and can still let you face a real situation, and can still provoke a deep perception and care.

There is still a cinema of dignity, and it exists all over the world, even if we’re inundated with a lot of unabashed junk. And these ‘other films’ are indeed fantastic tools to promote peace and to oppose a different perception to the numbing mainstream loss of consciousness. And there is simply nothing like it. Neither in television (on its way out, basically, although lately impressive work is being made in the serial form) or in the internet you find that audiences are still exposed to one voice. That old relationship between ‘the storyteller’ and his audience – Homer singing his mighty epic to the people sitting around him – where else other than in cinema do you still see it?

So I’m convinced that cinema has still, potentially, a powerful access to reality, can still promote peace, and can still enhance our perception and help us ‘see better.’

In the chapter about Ozu, Mr Wenders expresses gratitude for that ‘anonymous housewife from Brooklyn’ who introduced Ozu’s films to the US, and eventually led Mr Wenders to learn ‘that there had once existed the (now lost) paradise of filmmaking.’ Inventing Peace is a book about art as much as it is a book of philosophy, and it seems to suggest that as much can be learned about peace from our interactions with works of art as from the works of art themselves. In inventing peace, it is the role of the artist to reframe our perception — but what is the role of the audience? Do you see an ethical dimension to the ways that we engage with works of art?

MZ: Absolutely; perception is never a one-way process. In many ways, the task of our book was to open out the question of peace to consider the conditions for it – and to offer a way of seeing and how to imagine and invent a world that already exists and surrounds us; and we are all responsible for that.

WW: Not only beauty is in the eye of the beholder ... Movies have a strange form of existence: they are only completed in the eyes of each spectator. A film only exists when it’s reflected in someone’s heart. That’s why I often sit in a cinema and watch some mindless thing on the screen and see people stare at it just as mindlessly, and I realise: this film does not even exist. It provokes no repercussions, no encounters. It’s a waste, not only of time. But if a film leaves the space for the spectator to dream himself or herself into it, to read ‘between the lines,’ to fill it with his or her own experiences and thereby make it come to life, then and only then it exists.

The ‘ethical dimension,’ if you want, is the amount of freedom a film offers. A lot of the mainstream cinema offers no freedom whatsoever. ‘What you see is what you get.’ They come ‘wall to wall,’ and leave you no options, no space of your own. The reception (and perception of it) is devoid of any choice, except for the choice of caving in or walking out. The sound level alone often drowns all your abilities to distance yourself. You must know that feeling: you sit in your chair and you feel you’re being hit over your head. And then there are those ‘other movies.’ You come out and you see the world with other eyes. The film has managed to open up your perception and let your eyes and your mind breathe.

Many of the works of art that you cite as somehow illustrating or creating peace are representative of ‘high modernism’ in their respective mediums: Rilke, Eliot, and Auden in poetry; Ozu, Dreyer, Bresson, and Antonioni in cinema; Picasso, Hopper, and Andrew Wyeth in painting. This mode of reference gets at an underlying tension in the book, between looking towards the past and turning towards the future in the effort of understanding peace. Does modernism, as a historical moment, have something particularly important to tell us about peace? Are there other artists working today who strike you as being similarly invested in peace?

MZ: Yes, maybe, as the artists we speak of come out of a particular socio-historical fabric. Yet I firmly believe that art that speaks or connects with us in any way has an eternal quality to it. By that I mean it is a work that creates some kind of infinite quality when we engage with it ... and the work will continue to resonate long past the author or artist’s own lifetime.

Our book is an exploration of works that help to inform us to think about and invent peace; artists, philosophers, authors who have tackled issues in their own unique ways. The book is a dialogue for others and in that sense the hope is that artists who are already working within these spheres and parameters may be also encouraged and inspired by our book. But to answer your question more directly: Yoko Ono is the one of the most influential artists who has been working on peace for such a long period. Her most recent exhibition, War is Over, which I had the privilege of visiting in Sydney, is a fantastic gathering of creative works on how to ‘invent peace.’

A religious tone pervades throughout the book: many of its key terms and concepts readily evoke religious beliefs, and many of the writers whom it cites – Buber and Levinas (not to mention Eliot and Dreyer) – approach the concept of peace from the perspective of faith. Politically, peace is continually misappropriated by the religious right while it is secularised by the left. Inextricably bound to concepts such as the ‘holy,’ the ‘sacred,’ and ‘grace,’ as you show, can peace, in fact, be secular? Is it worthwhile to imagine, as John Lennon once did, a peaceful world with ‘no religion too’?

MZ: The spiritual elements of the book are precisely about encouraging a non-dogmatic approach to the everyday while at the same time encouraging what is lost – a sense of the importance of the holy.

I talk about it in the book in relation to my mother and my experience of her death. It was a pivotal moment for me. It was very holy – although I am not necessarily religious. I believe that if you share a moment with someone who is dying you realise that all of the expectations, fears and traumas that exist between you and the other person need to dissolve to be really with them. I think this is one of the hardest things for people; how to be with others and this experience of ‘being with’ others is a very holy and unique experience. I think both sides of politics don’t get what that means ... I think that is the task for our generations – how to think the sacred, holy and political without fear ... it is the supreme ethical question of our age.

And so Lennon’s words resonate with me, but in a different way: no religion would mean no dogmatism as well as a reverence for the holy in the everyday – the wonder of living, so to speak. Which I feel he was getting at anyway...

WW: ‘Imagine’ always moved me, but not because I felt I could subscribe to its message, but because it was such a hopelessly romantic utopia, and Lennon, too, makes sure we understand there is ‘a dreamer’ speaking. ‘No heaven,’ ‘no countries’ or ‘no possessions’ are definitely impossible on this planet. I do not see why it would matter to be a spiritual or a secular person when it comes to peace. The division is not between those. The division goes right through each religion and each secular movement: it is the line between those who accept others to be others, and those for whom the other is the enemy. I don’t even think that terms like ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ need a religious understanding. Things can be sacred for an atheist as well.

The two short documentary films which accompany the book – Invisible Crimes and War in Peace, both shot by Mr Wenders and his crew in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2006 — are very moving. Full of hope though the films may be, they can be difficult to watch at times, giving an interesting nuance to the vision of peace that you describe in the book: unsettling, uncomfortable, perhaps even miserable. Peace, you show, is not always pretty. To what extent do you think that the belatedness of a perception or aesthetics of peace is in part due to an unwillingness of humans to accept certain realities as truth? You offer ‘absence of fear’ as a possible definition of ‘peace’ several times, but is it possible that fear is itself preventing us from perceiving, conceiving, and ultimately achieving peace? Are we afraid of peace?

MZ: I think the fear is more that we have not yet cultivated the conditions of peace. Etymologically and historically speaking, fear is an interesting word – because it does contain within it the idea of ‘travel’ - of change, of apprehension. We have cultivated a world of fear, but peace is not a utopian idea; peace is something very practical and everyday and it does include the good, the bad and the ugly.

Following from the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (and Dostoevsky before him), we do have a responsibility toward others, and ‘I’ more than anyone else. What that essentially means is that we are all responsible for the world we live in and we need to able to create conditions for each other that allow the best possible experience and sacred elements of living to come forth. This ethical relationship is very hard and this ethical realm takes a lot of courage. My hope is that we can learn to be more ‘responsive’ to situations, not ‘reactive’ to them; so that in our responses we can learn new ways to invent relationships with each other and ourselves. And, for us, that is a question of perception: the real tension and struggle we all have between seeing and looking at the world.

WW: Mary has said it all. But yes, this is an unsettling question you’re asking us here: ‘Are we afraid of peace?’ Sometimes it looks, indeed, as if deep down inside, humanity was scared of it. As if it didn’t quite know what to do with it. Maybe war has been in our genes for too long to get rid of it for good. All the more reason to look at the way we ‘perceive’ peace.

Inventing Peace: A Dialogue on Perception is published by IB Tauris. More information can be found at their website: