An Interview with LAFA Winner Patrick Kohl ("The Conscience of Clothing")
Patrick Kohl is an award winning Berlin-based storyteller and film director. He specializes in cinematic portraits and capturing human life stories in cultural documentaries focused on creating impact for a better tomorrow. His journeys to cover life on film with national and international NGOs and foundations have taken him to 4 continents, including inspiring countries such as Nepal, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, India and Cambodia. Before working on cultural documentaries, Patrick worked as a journalist for over 10 years, as well as producer and (live-)director for several major international brands and European-based advertising agencies. He founded his first production company at the age of 25, where he worked with all major German TV networks. He likes the smell of freshly mowed lawns and drinks more coffee than he should. In October 2020, Patrick's debut feature documentary, The Conscience of Clothing, won Best Documentary Feature at LAFA. We invited him to join us for an interview - here's his story. Patrick, congratulations on winning Best Documentary for the excellent film The Conscience of Clothing. Before we chat about the making of the film, we'd like to get to know you a bit better.
You started out as a journalist and have focused on Journalism for 10 years. You also produced projects for commercial brands and advertising agencies in Europe and internationally. Your first production company, which you founded when you were only 25 years old, was successful in working with all major TV networks in Germany. With that in mind, what sparked this career change, and why did you dedicate your time to cultural documentaries? My life is a story of movement. I like to discover what inspires me. I am a son of parents that left former East Germany while being suppressed by the state and wanted to start a new life from scratch in the West. But to start all over with two small kids at that time, living in refugee housing after crossing the border, moving six times in my first years, settling without any belongings, being strangers to a quite conservative rural area, that shaped my character a lot. I admire the will and commitment of my parents but growing up it also meant to be the “guy from the east”, always trying to fit in, not to stand out. And also, not to feel at home. I didn’t know at that time, but through their behavior and education they subliminally taught me that I am not special, that I have to work hard if I want to achieve something. I worked as a news boy, waiter, at a ski lift, on construction sites and in a restaurant kitchen before working in the field of media. I finished a traineeship as a bank clerk. After that time, I was 21, I decided to sell my few personal belongings and travel to the USA. I bought a plane ticket and went to Las Vegas (where I lost almost ¼ of my money), started a road trip through the western USA and later began to write. In 2015, after years of continuous learning and fortunately being successful in most of the things I started, I was already a while in Berlin and decided that most of the work I am doing is basically senseless. It didn’t hurt anybody, but it also did not contribute to a better future for society. At that time the so-called “refugee crisis” began in Germany and busses of stranded people from Syria, Iraq and other countries, terrified by war and cruelty, arrived in Berlin. I started volunteering at a local refugee shelter in my neighborhood Kreuzberg and ended up working there full time for three months. I learned so much. Not only about the humans in the shelter, but also about me. They have inspired me and taught me to always have an open mind. And that was the starting point to work on social cultural portraits and documentaries. Since then, I have had the privilege to visit Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Nepal, India, Cambodia and South Africa to film outside of Europe.
How did you come up with the concept for The Conscience of Clothing and what makes you passionate about this concept in particular?
When I started working on the topic with the German Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation I laid it out as a trilogy. Fast fashion has been booming for over two decades, breaking one sad record after another. Today's fashion trends are tomorrow's garbage. Consumption is increasing rapidly, new collections are virtually flooding the market, clothes are hardly ever worn, and there is no recycling anyway. The planet is groaning from pollution and people in low-wage countries are being viciously exploited. Does it have to be this way and is there an alternative? THE CONSCIENCE OF CLOTHING tries to understand the complex network of clothing production, consumer behavior and marketing psychology in an entertaining way and asks whether there can be a way out into a sustainable and fair future for our clothing consumption.
It is a documentary that aims to raise awareness on sustainability and fair fashion. Fashion is human. It is individuality, creativity, personality, preferences, style. All of this makes us who we are. But it also makes us vulnerable to manipulation. What role does each of us play and is there an individual responsibility? What role do social media and influencers play and can they be part of the solution and not the problem? I definitely didn’t want to produce another documentary that shamefully pulls on your heartstrings, showing generic pictures of poverty. In the first film I wanted to show a cross-section of people living and working in Cambodia, picturing them in an authentic way, on eye level, showing the natural pride and grace that every human has.
What kind of research did you do before approaching the filming?
To be completely transparent: At first, we wanted to film the whole story in India. After a research trip to the country, meeting local NGOs and doing research from Delhi over Bangalore to Coimbatore we were all set to start, but the Indian government unfortunately declined our visa applications last minute. We were officially not allowed to enter the country.
So I started all over again and decided to go to Cambodia, a country that lives basically off its export revenue and approximately 80% of it is gained by the local garment industry. In 2019 I went there twice before filming and I was extremely transparent about our approach. I did not want to go and film undercover, threat people or put our sources and supporters at risk. I believe in the power of honesty and positive motivation for change.
On both trips I met several experts to talk about my ambition and plans. I’ve been with the International Labor Organization, local NGOs, the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia, garment workers, producers, unionists and of course, the Cambodian Ministry of Information. They decide who is allowed to film. In the end it all worked out.
Did you work with local crew members in Cambodia? If so, was the communication with them like?
We worked with quite a lot of local sources and crew members. Cambodia is a small country. People know each other in their respective fields. And most of the professionals speak good English. I felt really welcomed and appreciated. We hired a local journalist as fixer and translator, a driver, bought some gear and travelled together in a bus like a big patch work family.
What was the biggest takeaway from working with Helen Fares and Willy Iffland?
We only had two weeks with each of our protagonists Helen Fares and Willy Iffland and wanted to travel across the country to include the beauty of Cambodia’s countryside and show a bit of its rich and sad history. It was quite a challenge to capture a holistic view of the industry and the country.
I believe that for Willy and Helen it was a quite unique experience and I am grateful that they were up for the experiment. Willy had never been in touch with any of the people making his clothes or the circumstances of garment production. Helen is a really conscious person. A feminist fighting for human rights. But even she had a certain stereotype of poor people in mind coming to Cambodia. All this got challenged.
Meet. Ask. Listen. Reflect. It was interesting to see how they interpreted their role in this system.
What's the most exciting thing you discovered during the shoot?
Personally, I think it’s always about the small things to discover and the vibe you feel being with new, strange people. Even if you do not speak the same language there is a universal understanding between humans and their souls, wanting to connect peacefully. Helping each other. Full of granted trust.
I know it is a stereotype but being invited into somebody’s home is still the most special and exciting thing in the world for me. Full of dignity. You don’t know what is right or wrong to you, but you see that people really care. In Cambodia we were invited to have dinner with a family. They killed two chickens for us, that is a huge financial expense. No matter how vegan you are. You eat that chicken.
You probably had hours and hours of footage to choose from for the final edit. Can you take us through your editing process, how do you decide what makes it into the film?
I think we came back with more or less 50TB of footage. This was my first documentary feature and I have to admit I underestimated the workload and workflow of such a huge process. You should have seen my office wall – it was covered with post-its.
Pieces of the story here, connecting dots over there. Side stories in the one corner and some mood and style frames in another. A huge puzzle. In the end my co-editor Ana Viegas helped me structure it as a wave, giving the audience moments to breath and let information sink in between the more emotional or oppressive parts.
This interview will not be complete before we ask about the challenges you encountered while filming. Did everything go smoothly?
After two research trips and an estimated 1000+ mails and calls upfront we were actually quite organized. Timing, weather, local police and government permits – everything went well. With a team of only a few people and a minimum budget you have to be effective. Oh wait, I almost forgot. Luckily I was the only one who made it to pass four weeks not having stomach problems one single time. All others unfortunately fetched something during the trip. Shit happens.
The entire film feels very authentic- it takes the viewer on a fascinating journey that provokes many questions. What were some of the reactions to the film so far, and how do you feel about the film's success, winning so many awards worldwide?
So far it is quite successful: After our release we've been selected by over 20 film-, eco- and human rights festivals and won 7 of them, still receiving a couple of awards and invitations. I am also incredibly happy for my camera people Alina Koschnike and Patrick Dosnajh for being awarded for their outstanding cinematography. Right now, we are in promising talks with Germany's biggest public television broadcast and the usual streaming platforms, trying to find a deal for the whole trilogy. Fingers crossed.
Parallel to this I am trying to build a platform that brings change for international content creators collaborating with industry stakeholders, iNGOs and policy makers to create a just society and binding, fair and transparent conditions for supply chains, benefiting for the global south.
I’d like to enable all stakeholders which are co-creating the future ways of consumption to collaborate in a more conscious, humanistic way by creating a thriving community that is generating a positive impact and will be too big to neglect.
Do you have any tips for young documentarians who wish to follow in your footsteps and create inspiring films like this one?
I’d like to be careful with “good” advice. For me it is still a different world out there with a lot of privileges - structurally and institutionalized. I cannot say if I would be in the same position if I’d be a woman, LGBTQ or BiPOC. This has to change. Even though I worked my way up from the bottom not knowing anybody in the business, I still am a white male with a German passport. Personally, I am on the journey of discovering how I can use my voice, network and influence to lift others up and stand for those who should not have to stand alone.
If I'd need to say three things: Be emphatic. Be persistent. Be bold.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years, and is there a certain filmmaker or production company you'd like to collaborate with in the future?
When I was a child my family never had a house or fancy car. My parents liked to spend their money on traveling. My bigger brother Eddy and I could always come along. This way I was able to discover many parts of the world while growing up. I was always attached to this “American Way” of entertainment, be it films or theatre or studios. I even bought myself a little fake OSCAR trophy with my pocket money.
Later, when I went to the United States for the first time on my own, I ended that road trip in California and met a beautiful diverse bunch of people, who were working in all kinds of creative jobs in the industry. I was immediately drawn into this. Eventually we became friends, but I had to return to Europe. This connection never broke up, even though we don’t see each other very often. That was where it all started. I was inspired, feeling creative, and got my mind into writing and photography.
I always had that dream of coming back, moving to Los Angeles and being a part of an industry that has the potential to create impact across borders and nationalities. Cheesy, I know. But I owe that one to myself, so I can say at least I have tried.
What is next for you, and what is next for the film?
Right now I am in Cape Town, South Africa doing research and establishing a new network of inspiring people. I am doing two things parallel. First, I am planning the sequel of THE CONSCIENCE OF CLOTHING for which we'd like to start producing this year in late summer in Europe. If the pandemic allows it, we’ll be filming in Serbia, Portugal, Spain, Germany and the UK.
Secondly, I am developing a documentary series about circularity and – if we find funding - I'd love to film a pitch episode for it about a huge topic this spring and summer. With that I'd like to go knock down the same doors as mentioned above. It’s going to be an inspiring series about resilience, movements, commitment and individuals creating an impact. Studios, funders, financiers - this way please!
Would you like to add anything/thank anyone?
I am just grateful and thankful for the experience and the team effort. There were and are still so many good people working and contributing to this project - from artists to social media - often for free. For me 2020 was a year of learning and acceptance. To quote Lisa Olivera: „Our pain is valid, even when others seem to have it worse. Our joy is valid, even when others can’t find theirs. Our experiences are valid, whether or not they are the same as that of other people. Being human is so deeply complex, and our complexity is allowed. All of it. All of ours.“
The next decade will hopefully kick-off a decade of forgiveness and compassion, of process and healing.