Normalizing Diversity on the Silver Screen: Zachary Kerschberg’s Crises Trilogy

| November 21, 2016

Only if we show diversity as both positive and normal, will we actually evoke change.

After graduating from NYU, Late Spring director Zachary Kerschberg traveled to Berlin, where he was inspired to make Crises – A Berlin Trilogy. The in-progress trio of films will blend multiple genres and filmmaking styles as it follows a diverse group of characters living in the German city.

Indiewire recently selected Kerschberg’s Kickstarter campaign as one of its Projects of the Day, and Film School Shorts caught up with the director to learn more about his ambitious undertaking.

Ahmed bottles 01

Ahmed is a dancer and refugee from Burkina Faso hoping to gain asylum in Germany.

Why did you decide to move to Berlin after film school? What is the filmmaking community like over there?

I had wanted to visit Berlin for about 10 years, so when I was approached in 2014 by a producer to write a script about women in World War II, I jumped at the opportunity. I planned to spend only the summer, but after three months in Berlin I became enamored with the freedom and decided to stay. It was like no place I had ever seen; a city without rules that championed counter culture and artistic experiments. Almost immediately, I knew I wanted to make a film about the city and its people. The film turned into a trilogy, and we’re still shooting, so for now I’m still here.

I can’t speak so much for the filmmaking community because truthfully, in my time here, I have interacted less with filmmakers and more with dancers, musicians, painters and other visual artists. But the film culture in Berlin is absolutely amazing. Besides the obvious modern theaters, Berlin has an abundance of gorgeous, old, history-filled theaters and dozens of tiny art-house cinemas.

In the summer, there are countless open-air cinemas. In the winter, there’s a bar where you can sit in a giant hot tub and watch a movie. People here still go to the rental store and talk about their favorite directors with the guy working there. Every week there’s another film festival, from Sci-Fi to LGBTQ to Jewish to Porn to Art. And people go, all the time. As a filmmaker it’s absolutely beautiful to see and experience these things.

Tell us a little about the Crises trilogy. Are these new films narrative, documentary, or experimental, or do they fit into all three genres?

These films definitely fit into all three genres. The cast is all non-actors that I met in various ways and whose stories inspired me. Part of the time we just follow them with the camera, like a fly on the wall. At other times the narratives are reenactments of stories the actors themselves had told me. Some of the elements are completely fictitious and some are just slightly pushed for an effect.

We shot about 80 percent of the films in the winter of 2014 without any kind of script. Now, when we reshoot this winter, some scenes will be roughly sketched out, so it’s really a mix of documentary and narrative. I’ve also chosen different cinematic techniques to represent each of the characters. One of them, for example, is haunted by images from his last relationship; his story is warped by time, so I’ve decided to tell it through rewinding, fast-forwarding, slow motion, nightmares, flashbacks, and looped memories. I really wanted to give myself the freedom to experiment with my first feature and entertain any idea that came to mind – most of the time these ideas don’t stick, but they often lead to something else that does.

Domi dancing 02

Your characters are different ages, genders, races, sexualities, and nationalities. How did you find such a diverse cast, and why was that important to you?

It’s funny, but it’s actually a Berlin phenomenon, sitting in an incredibly diverse group of people that have somehow become good friends. I met the cast in different ways: some in German class, some at a performance, some through mutual friends, even one as a roommate, and then they introduced me to the others.

I knew I wanted the films to reflect the times we live in and the diversity of the city. I also wanted to give equal screen time to people of color and women – as it is important to me to challenge the stereotypes that have and continue to plague mainstream culture – only if we show diversity as both positive and normal, will we actually evoke change. I also knew what secondary themes I wanted to address and what kind of people I was looking for to fulfill those roles. It’s hard to say what came first.

Why did you decide to split the Crises stories between three films?

When I went into this project, I didn’t intend on making it a trilogy. But I wanted to capture six different characters – each of who represents another internal crisis – and interweave their stories. The more I got to know the characters, the richer I discovered them to be and I realized that a feature-length movie couldn’t possibly do them or their stories justice. I thought about making an epic, but that didn’t work either, because much of what I’m trying to depict is the idea of fragmented lives in a globalized world. My characters are lonely and feel this acutely, but they are also never really alone. The structure I’ve created for the trilogies mirrors this exact dichotomy – the six stories connect and intersect in different ways and to different degrees, but each character’s story is also self-contained. Most of the characters know each other, some are even good friends, but at the end of the day, all they have is themselves.

Matteo busking

Matteo is an Italian singer-songwriter dealing with a breakup in a foreign country.

How did your experience going through NYU’s MFA program and making Late Spring influence your process on the new films?

NYU’s MFA program was an incredibly nurturing and supportive environment where I had the opportunity to make nine short films. In each one I pushed myself to try something new – to get out of my comfort zone. Some examples of this were casting non-actors, working without a script, and shooting without lights.

Late Spring was special because it was my most ambitious film at NYU. While it was a very controlled set, it pushed me in new ways. Shooting abroad meant directing in a foreign language, while examining a contemporary, political subject like the Arab Spring meant really listening to and collaborating with people who had lived through it. In many ways, each of my short films is a copy of an established genre and language and Crises is an opportunity for me to explore, experiment and discover my own language and style.

zachary kerschberg 2016

Director Zachary Kerschberg

You can learn more about Crises – A Berlin Trilogy on the film’s website or on Kickstarter, and watch Late Spring below!


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Film School Shorts is made possible by a grant from Maurice Kanbar, celebrating the vitality and power of the moving image, and by the members of KQED.

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