A Film by Shmuel Hoffman & Anton von Heiseler

with a composition by Sarah Nemtsov for keyboard solo (with amplified piano and voice)

World Premiere: on January 18th, 2020, 17h, Radialsystem Berlin – Christoph Grund, keyboard/piano – festival Ultraschall Berlin – duration 24 minutes


Statement by Sarah Nemtsov (composer):

“Mountain & Maiden” is a film by Anton von Heiseler & Shmuel Hoffman. A kind of experimental documentary about a ten-year-old girl, Aaspiya, who lives near the landfill in New Delhi (India). The girl doesn’t go to school, she collects garbage. But Aaspiya still seems to be a happy child, wide awake and clever. How to create music here? A silent film comes to my mind – speechless – in the 21st century. The film has no sound of its own. Instead of a silent film pianist, we have a silent film keyboardist (with a slightly amplified piano). For the keyboard, I created 88 samples corresponding to the 88 keys: some of them are arrangements of the original sound that I received from the filmmakers, some are electronic sounds, field recordings, new recordings or other discoveries. The sounds are played to the film, sometimes as a something like a soundtrack, but also contrasting, questioning and interwoven with the concert grand piano (including some Schubert appeals – as the title alludes to: “Death and the Maiden”).

All “illustrative” sounds are actually an illusion, because there is no “real” sound track to the documentary. The sounds are always alienated, musicalized; the moments that really accompany a picture (for example a match) on frame are recorded here or are broken by other sounds. Crackling fire – a burning mountain made of plastic waste or vinyl? The sound of a tap in India is extinguished by the white noise that flows from our taps. The circling birds above the landfill have tinnitus-like frequencies in their calls that are added to the samples. A slow tracking camera shot over the garbage is accompanied by a strict fugue for sample keyboard, in which all the sounds swirl together.

A special virtuosity is required, the pianist jumps back and forth between the keyboards and always has to keep an eye on the picture and occasionally include extracts from an interview with the girl and translate them simultaneously. Of course this is absurd. The whole thing is absurd – a concert grand piano in front of a mountain from garbage. A mountain of keyboards. We sometimes see poetic images in the film, human silhouettes, special light, foggy gases, in fact this haze is pure poison, the people there go without any protection. 40% of children suffer from respiratory diseases. The drinking water is contaminated. In some way, our garbage ends up in these dumps – and so does our responsibility.

I had been commissioned to compose a solo piano work (for pianist Christoph Grund) from Festival Ultrasound Berlin. Now it has become something else, an artistic venture, risky. I hope that we can raise awareness with this project.


Statement by Shmuel Hoffman (Director/New York):

In 2018, Anton von Heiseler came to the USA in order to work with us on some commercial and documentary films. He showed me his first film from India “Black Mountain” and I was ecstatic. After we tossed around a few ideas, he asked me if I wanted to get involved and co-produce the second part of this trilogy. 

So, we traveled in December 2018 to New Delhi, and we wanted to visit Aasma, the protagonist of “Black Mountain”, Anton’s first film. But Aasma was long gone since she married and moved to the countryside. Her little sister Aaspiya, 10, and her younger brother were still left home with their parents in a tiny, one-room shanty at the foot of the black mountain. We filmed a few scenes in that shack, and we knew we had the next story.

A ten-year-old girl living in really difficult circumstances, deprived of going to school. She has to work in the landfill collecting trash in order to support her family. Despite her circumstances, she seems to be a curious, upbeat and full-of-life child.

The “Black Mountain,” Anton’s first film on the subject, was about the suffering, the people, and  the rape of the environment. “Mountain & Maiden” is about a girl living WITH the mountain. That mountain that gives life and sustenance and brings death at the same time.

Sound and music are an integral part of every film. But with “Mountain & Maiden” we wanted to find a different path other than just illustrating pictures with sound.

I always had in the back of my mind Sarah’s amazing musical work, and always wanted to collaborate with her. So, I approached her and asked if she would be interested in writing music for this film.

And she came up with a stunning idea:

Sarah had already agreed on writing a composition for the Ultraschall Berlin festival, and we decided that our film and her composition would become ONE piece. A musical composition WITH a film.

We went and set out to create not just a film, but a film and composition at the same time that neither can live without. And yet each of them are separate incarnations that tell the same story.

We wanted this to be a piece with nowness, that can be only played as a life performance. Like in the silent era when films were musically illustrated live. And the idea was born to create a musical piece for keyboard and piano solo and film. 


Statement by Anton von Heiseler (Director/Berlin):

Im Südwesten von Delhi, am Rande der Stadt, liegt der kleine Ort Bhalaswa. Es ist die letzte Station von der Metro „Jahangirpuri“: Hier stinkt es. Nur wenige Kilometer weiter steht ein 30 Meter hoher Berg aus Abfall direkt neben einem Highway.    

Katharina Michalsky und ich waren 2014-2015 in den Megacitys Indiens auf Recherchereise. Der Plan war, mit der indischen Eisenbahn die gesamte Küste Indiens zu umrunden und jeweils einige Tage an einem Ort zu bleiben, um die Menschen zu beobachten und Themen und Geschichten zu finden. Aus dem Zugfenster und im Zug war Müll allgegenwärtig. Schließlich kamen wir nach Delhi, Indiens Hauptstadt und fanden dort durch Zufall am süd-westlichen Rande den kleinen Ort Bhalaswa. Inmitten Bhalaswas liegt ein großer, rauchender Müllberg, vor dem Kinder in der untergehenden Sonne spielten. Als wir dieses Bild durch die Kamera sahen, wussten wir, dass wir darüber einen Film machen möchten. Wir wussten noch nichts von der Grundwasser-Kontamination, der Zwangsumsiedlung von Slum Bewohnern aus der Innenstadt nach Bhalaswa direkt neben den Müllberg und kannten die verrückte Welt noch nicht, die einem auf dem Müllberg begegnet. Wir sahen bloß ein paradoxes romantisches Bild: ein warmer Sonnenuntergang, ein Berg, spielende Kinder, kleine selbst gebaute Häuser und eine blau angemalte Pipeline neben einem kleinen See und wussten: das ist die Geschichte, die wir erzählen möchten.      

Wir haben dann einen Film über die Menschen, die auf der Müllhalde arbeiten, begonnen. Damals filmten wir zum ersten Mal das Mädchen Aasma. Sie war 16. Ein Jahr später wollten wir Aasma weiter begleiten, doch sie war verschwunden. Sie wurde in ein Dorf verheiratet und hat nun schon ein Kind.   

2018 bin ich in die USA gereist und habe mit Shmuel Hoffman, einem amerikanisch-israelischen Filmproduzenten und Regisseur, angefangen an dem zweiten Teil des “Black Mountains” zu arbeiten. Ich bin mit Shmuel nach New Delhi zurückgegangen und durch Zufall haben wir angefangen, Aaspiyas Alltag zu begleiten. Uns wurde schließlich klar, dass sie die kleine Schwester von Aasma ist. “Mountain & Maiden” ist ein im Verhältnis gesehen kleiner Ausschnitt eines Langzeitprojektes. Hier schauen wir Aaspiya bei ihrem Alltag zu. Es ist ein wortloses Zuschauen auf eine Realität, die wie eine Fiktion wirkt.

Das Team hinter der Langzeitbegleitung des schwarzen Berges wird 2020 wiederum Aasma in ihrem Alltag auf dem Land begleiten.


picture from the rehearsal, Jan 18th, Radialsystem Berlin, Christoph Grund

film stills copyright Shmuel Hoffman & Anton von Heiseler


Essay by Eckhard Weber for the Festival Ultraschall Berlin: