Director: Michael Kranz (Germany). Year of Release: 2022
Michael Kranz was still a film student when he made “Was tun” as his graduation film. He was inspired to make it after he saw a different film – Michael Glawogger’s Whore’s Glory. In Glawogger’s film, a 15-year old prostitute in Bangladesh asks “Is there any other way out of misery for us women? Is there a way at all? Who can answer these questions for me?”
Was tun is Kranz’s attempt to come to terms with his inability to answer her questions. His professor warned him against making the film at all, pointing out the danger of this being another White Saviour film, in which someone from the rich, white, West tries and fails to solve the problems suffered on a daily basis by people in the Global South. Kranz acknowledges his professor’s advice, then books his flight to Bangladesh anyway.
This appears to be Kranz’s default modus operandi. He is clearly one of the Good Guys, and perpetually wrestles with his conscience. And yet every time he unearths an apparently insoluble dilemma (and he encounters many problems which he is unable to solve on his own), he tells us that there is no easy answer, but then blunders on regardless.
In addition, for all that Kranz clearly would love the world to be a better place than it is, he can’t avoid putting himself in the centre of things. Take the prostitute from Whore’s Glory. Kranz shows a clip of the film to the people he finds on the streets of Faridpur. No-one seems to know her, but they point him In the direction of the local brothel. After visiting the brothel, he tells us that he’s heard dozens of stories which were just as traumatizing as the one’s in Glawogger’s film (tellingly, he doesn’t relay them here). Nevertheless he insists on carrying on his mission to find the girl from the film.
Once more, Kranz wrestles with his conscience. Does it make sense to look for this girl, when he’s just spoken to plenty of people whose predicament is just as bad? What does he intend to say to her when he finds her? He’s already conceded that he has no practical solution. Kranz is good at asking many pertinent questions. He is much less good at coming close to finding any answers.
Was tun is at its best when as simple investigative journalism. Kranz uncovers a vicious circle where young girls are forced into prostitution until they are too old to be considered desirable (which seems to be about 20 years old). As they have no job, and have been ostracized by their families and society, they then become the next wave of madams coaxing even younger girls into the brothel.
Kranz interviews a masked man who is straight out of “evil baddie” casting. Sure, he sells young girls he says, sure he tortures them. He explains how he feeds them sleeping tablets then wakes them up after a few hours so they’re confused and he and his friends can rape them. But they’re not his family, and he has no other source of income, so what else can he do? As usual, the film watches on incredulously, but does not confront him.
Suddenly Kranz has a stroke of luck. He’s helping some NGO workers to wean girls off prostitution and try to organise them some education. There is a woman in the brothel who is helping them approach the girls. Then the woman sees Kranz’s film of the 15-year old and says “I know here – I used to own her.” She points Kranz to the brothel where the girl is now working, and he finally finds what he’s been looking for. Again, he fails to confront her former owner.
He can finally ask the girl if she’s found any answers to her questions. I’m not sure what he’s expecting – if he, a relatively rich Westerner is clueless, does he really expect the victim of the exploitation and rape find a solution for him? If he does, he’s in the wrong place. If anything, she says, she sees fewer ways out than before. Then she thought she could find individual liberation by escaping her owners. But she’s now “free” and still needs to work as a prostitute to survive.
Fun fact: “Was tun?” is the German title of Lenin’s “What is to be done?” Without the question mark, a better translation is “do something”. This can be taken in two ways – either stop your passivity and change the world. Or do something, anything. It doesn’t matter whether or not what you do changes anything, just as long as you salve your troubled liberal conscience.
Kranz either paid for him and his cameraman to fly to Bangladesh or found a film company to put up the money. In the end credits, he says that he visits the subjects of the film every year. He is also a fairly successful actor, with roles in The White Ribbon and Inglourious Basterds. You might argue that the money would be better spent on funding projects, like the children’s home he funds after posting an appeal on facebook than in amassing frequent flyer points.
This would be a poor argument, as the cost of a flight to Bangladesh is a drop in the ocean compared to the immensity of the problem. But, then what is the point of this film? It might seem beyond the film’s remit to talk about the legacy of colonialism or of taking money from the world’s richest men (and women, I’m looking at you queenie), but however idealistic this would be, at least it would offer a way out. For all its evident goodwill, all Was tun can do is shrug and say “it’s difficult, isn’t it?”