The power of storytelling to drive social change

Interview with German-American director, Sherry Hormann

We spoke to film director Sherry Hormann in the iconic Delphi cinema in Berlin. She told us about the importance of portraying the individual experience, dealing with tough subjects on screen, and why storytelling has always touched human beings.

For 175 years, the people at ZEISS have asked the question: How can we challenge the limits of imagination? Now, in celebration of that vision, ZEISS has partnered with thought leaders and great minds from around the globe for ZEISS Beyond Talks, giving them centerstage to speak about their own work, visions, passion and issues that are affecting our world moving forward.

ZEISS Beyond Talks

Interview with German-American director, Sherry Hormann*

What drives you to make films?

I love storytelling. For our children, there is nothing more touching than sitting next to your father, mother, aunt or siblings and listening to someone telling you stories. Slowly you blend into a different world and can let go of daily life – even as a child.

I think it's the same when you screen a movie. The moment the lights go off and the canvas opens, you have this togetherness. There’s a unity within the audience as you watch a story unfold from beginning to end. This still fascinates me today and it’s why I make movies.

Please tell us when you got into the industry and how your career developed.

I started out in 1991 doing very personal movies and I won several important German awards. But the audience was not interested in those kinds of movies, so I restarted again in 1995 with comedies, and they were very successful. When you secretly go into a cinema for one of your movies and see 700 people laughing – that’s a great moment.

Then I decided I wanted to quit the movie business. I was done, so I moved to a forest in the United States with nothing but bears, moose and rabbits. After five years, I got so bored with the solitude that I decided I wanted a restart. At this point I became interested in political movies, which is when I did Desert Flower. It’s great to have the opportunity to re-invent your point of view into what you think is relevant at a given moment in time.

Sherry Hormann German-American director

When you secretly go into a cinema for one of your movies and see 700 people laughing – that’s a great moment.

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Please tell us more about Desert Flower, and how it deals with the subject of female genital mutilation.

Desert Flower is a great example of how movies can change something . The film follows the story of a Somali woman in exile who works her way up to becoming a top international model who speaks out about female genital mutilation.

After we shot the film, we went back to the location in Djibouti, close to the border with Somalia. When we had filmed it there, we had told the people that we could come back to show them the movie. Female genital mutilation is a topic they don’t talk about, and we had a huge screen blown up in the desert to show the film. We thought that perhaps 50 to 100 people would show up, but eventually there were more than 2,000 nomads and villagers watching the screen.

At the end of the movie – in the last 15 minutes – when you really come to the central topic and watch the scene where the child is mutilated, everyone fell silent. You could have heard a pin drop on the ground.

Then when the movie was over, one man stood up – a nomad – and he said: “thank you, I did not know this is going on.” Then many other men stood up and said the same thing. I was flabbergasted.

© Sherry Hormann
© Sherry Hormann
© Sherry Hormann

How does film making of this kind affect you personally?

These topics not only go under your skin – they go deep into your heart. 

The biggest thing in doing these movies is to go on searching and being ok with not knowing the answer. Just show what you see, and let other people make whatever they will out of it.

© Mathias Bothor

What would you say to young film makers starting out today?

Tell your individual story, your individual point of view. Not something global, because global is always on the surface. Look at people and not at topics – there’s a huge difference.

If young film makers start looking at people and telling their individual stories, then they will naturally come to the big topics of racism, the environment, and the other important subjects of our time.

Sherry Hormann German-American director

Young directors should look at people and not at topics – there’s a huge difference.

Please tell us more on your thoughts of how technology is changing cinema.

If we look at the history of humanity, the huge changes came with technology. That’s because we humans have a great gift: flexibility. But we need to use this gift and not see ourselves as a victim.

I think every technology that changes things forces you to be open and make the best out of it. The digital approach has profoundly changed the way we direct films. For instance, you don’t have a break between takes anymore. You just go on shooting, with much less effort than before to arrange a situation for the actors.

Now we have streaming, we have YouTube, and there are new channels coming up all time. It’s great that there is such variety, and that we have technologies available to make aesthetic changes or take different approaches. There are no borders for fantasy, and technology is a great tool for exploring the impossible.

© Mathias Bothor
With everybody watching movies and TV shows online, what are your thoughts on the future of cinema and film-making?

I won’t give up on the hope that cinema will survive.

The core of cinema has such a strong heartbeat that I don’t believe it will die. I think the quality of cinema that people go out to watch – to consciously spend money on when they want to be entertained – I believe this will bring respect back to the medium.

The most important topics to be discussed in the films of the future are empathy, compassion, and open-mindedness. If you ask someone a question, then listen to the answer. Don't push into the foreground – let all people listen to one another.

Sherry Hormann German-American director

If you ask someone a question, then listen to the answer. Don't push into the foreground – let all people listen to one another.


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