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Portraits In Motion

“I am a storyteller,” says Volker Gerling. “A flipbook-film-storyteller.” Gerling is a troubadour of sorts. He is renowned for wandering his native Germany collecting stories, taking photos of people, compiling the photos into flipbooks and turning himself into a travelling cinema. A flip book is a primitive form of animation, and the Germans have a delightful word for it – Daumenkino – which essentially translates to ‘thumb movie’. Now, Gerling's flip book travels will bring him to Australian shores with his Portraits in Motion, which he is bringing to The Festival of Live Art. Last year, Portraits in Motion won the Edinburgh Fringe’s Total Theatre Award for innovations, experimentation and playing with form.

Gerling has clocked up almost 3,500 kilometres of travel since 2003. He says he originally started walking around Germany because he wanted to travel, but couldn’t afford it. “I wanted to make a long journey but I didn’t have enough money," he recalls. "Walking is the cheapest way of travelling, and I set off without any money of my own.” As he wanders, he shows people the flipbooks, telling and collecting stories along the way.
 
“Walking is important to me; walking is the right way to do this," he says. "It’s the right pace for people to have time to stop. There is the relationship between walking along and looking at the flipbooks. People can look at the flipbooks at their own pace. Same with me – I walk at my own pace. There is a matching rhythm between walking and looking at the flipbooks, a connection between walking and showing people the portraits.”
 
The stories he finds along his travels are all unique. When considered as a whole, they become woven together in a tapestry of narrative that reveal the different facets and feelings of what it means to be human.
 
“Sometimes the conversations last one or more days. Sometimes they are sad stories, sometimes funny stories. It’s a mixture,” he continues. “I use a film-based camera; for me it’s important to use analogue. I develop the photos in a dark room. Each flip book is 36 pages, because there are 36 pictures in a film. Another reason I use film is that if I used digital, then people would want to discuss the photos or they would ask me to delete some of the photos.” In Gerling's opinion, the ephemeral nature of the medium is what makes his project so appealing. “People are so touched because it’s a simple idea. You don’t need any technology, any electricity to see them.”
 
Ultimately, Portraits in Motion came about through a chance encounter. “It was not my idea,” he elaborates. “In 2005, the Berlin Festival of Arts asked me to do something on stage. The first performance was done without a rehearsal. In German we have a saying ­– ‘to jump in cold water’. That is what I did. I looked at the flipbooks at lunchtime and went on stage that night.”
 
Portraits in Motion sees Gerling showing the flip books held under a video camera, and the moving images subsequently projected onto large screen. Throughout, he treats the stories with the upmost respect.
 
“I tell the stories as if the people whose stories I am telling are in the audience. I want them to feel good. And I want to feel good about how I tell their stories, even though they are not in the theatre. Authenticity is a very important word for what I am doing.”
 
Thirteen years on, Gerling is still enthusiastic about photographing people and hearing their stories. “It’s always changing," he says. "There are always new flipbooks in my show and new stories to tell. I hope that I do this until I am an old man.”
 
BY LIZA DEZFOULI

Portraits in Motion will run from Tuesday March 1 – Sunday March 6 at Theatre Works as part of the Festival of Live Art.