Like every other ardent film fan around the world, German documentarian Marc Eberle has been fascinated by movies ever since he was a boy, when he was too young to really understand what was happening in some of tales being told on the big screen.
As he grew older his fascination grew with him and many of those films have ended up serving as major sources of inspiration and enlightenment for him in his personal journey of trying to make sense of the world around him.
In the end, that journey took him halfway around the world to the heart of Southeast Asia — to Cambodia — where he currently resides: “An incredible country, so beautiful, so dark and so tragic all at the same time.”
Recently one evening in Goethe Haus, Jakarta, as hard rain poured across the city, Eberle recalled his childhood memory and shared the story of how his lifelong love affair with movies began.
Born in Heidelberg in southwest Germany in 1972, at first little Eberle’s family did not have a television set in their home.
When his parents finally bought a TV, the family had “typical family TV evening” time, where all family members sat in front of the TV watching programs or films before the parents sent the kids to bed.
“We didn’t have cable. There were only three channels at the time and it made me very frustrated, because I really liked watching films, as most kids do, I guess,” he said.
Luckily for Eberle, there was a film theater at another village near his home. “It was an art house
cinema, which was a rarity for a small town in southern Germany. I was very lucky that the place had these very motivated people who had these art house movies that I could watch.”
When he was a little bit older, in 1990, he saw David Lynch’s Wild at Heart at the cinema and the movie completely blew his mind.
“I have never seen a film like that before. It did something in me. I was so elated and emotionally charged after watching it. It was then and there that I decided I wanted to do something with filmmaking in my life,” he said.
An avid fan of many film genres, from Werner Herzog’s works to the escapist entertainment of James Bond films, Eberle said that two other films that left indelible marks upon him were Francis Ford Coppola’s hallucinatory Vietnam War film masterpiece Apocalypse Now and its much-hailed making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.
“Those two films caught my attention very early when I was young. I was too young to understand what had happened in [the Vietnam War] and in the films, but I wanted to learn more,” he said.
Apocalypse Now tells the story of an American soldier stationed in Saigon and assigned to follow the Nung River into remote Cambodian jungle to find and kill a rogue American colonel who was believed to have gone insane and was now commanding his own troops comprised of local mountain people.
Heart of Darkness, meanwhile, chronicles the film’s infamously lengthy and troubled production, in which Coppola and his production team had to contend with extreme weather conditions, actor health problems and an increasing budget, among other things.
“So I looked at the map and searched where Cambodia and Vietnam was. On the map, I read the word ‘Angkor’ with a symbol for an archaeological site. I then looked up Angkor Wat in a lexicon and found that it was a temple — the biggest temple in the world. I was just wowed,” he said.
Those memories stayed with him for a long time.
In the meantime, Eberle took up the study of language, literature, and culture of North America and with history and media culture at the University of Hamburg. He then completed a Master’s program in film and television from Royal Holloway, University of London.
His first documentary was about the Kumbh Mela, a massive Hindu pilgrimage in which tens of millions of Hindus gather at the Ganges River to bathe themselves and purify their bodies from all earthly sins.
“There were 70 million people who came to this one place in India to take a bath in the Ganges. I have never seen anything like it. It just blew my mind,” Eberle recalled.
The resulting film is a 25-minute documentary titled Kumbh Mela: The Largest Festival on Earth, which won him the Axel Springer Award, a German journalism award for young journalists.
Afterward, the documentary’s commissioning editor asked Eberle what he wanted to do next and, immediately, those amazing pictures of Angkor Wat and Cambodian landscapes came back to him.
He first arrived in Cambodia in 2002 and has resided in the country ever since, currently taking up residence in its capital city Phnom Penh.
He made his Angkor Wat documentary, but later said the result did not satisfy him.
Starting from January this year, Eberle has been appointed as the artistic director for DocNet South East Asia, a two-year regional documentary filmmaking training initiative funded by the European Union and the Goethe Institut with numerous panel discussions, workshops and a master class in Indonesia, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.
His latest documentary, The Most Secret Place on Earth, tells the story of the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) covert war against communist guerillas in Laos throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
During his ten-year stay in Cambodia, he has fallen deeply in love with the country. “It’s such an incredible country. I need to stay here to make a better film and to do justice to the country’s history.”
Even though Germany is still the one and only true home for Eberle, he said that Cambodia had become a new comfort zone for him.
“As a person from Germany, which has a dark history with Hitler and the Third Reich, I felt very close to Cambodia, which had also gone through a very tragic and horrible history due to the Vietnam War and the genocide the Khmer Rouge inflicted on its own people,” he said.
“It’s really a completely different culture from my own. The country, the nation and the war are all different. Yet there have been underlying moments that are very close to my home country’s history.”
In the end, he said Asia was place so far away from his home. “But, at the same time, it is very close to my heart.”
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