Documentary spends a day with Berliners

70 directors, 400 crew members tackle 24-hour project

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BERLIN -- The project: "24h Berlin," a 24-hour documentary capturing one day in the life of Germany's capital. The team: A 400-person crew with 70 directors under the guidance of director Volker Heise and producer Thomas Kufus. The budget: Less than $4 million.

"It's pretty ambitious, pretty crazy actually," Thomas Kufus of Berlin's Zero One Films says of his his company's epic documentary "24h Berlin." "No one has ever attempted something like this before -- trying to capture an entire city in one day."

The crazy idea came from Heise, Kufus' partner, and director of the award-winning reality series "Schwarzwaldhaus 1902."

Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Kufus thought the time was right to take documentaries to the next level. His nonfiction film tries to tell not just one of the 4 million stories in the naked city, but all of them.

Unlike traditional TV docs, "24h Berlin" will not be whittled down to fit a one-hour time slot. From the start, it was conceived as a full day of programming: one documentary, 24 hours long, no commercial breaks.

"We didn't really know what to expect when we pitched it to broadcasters, but people were very excited," Kufus said. "Channels, particularly public channels, are looking for ways to create events, without breaking their budgets and this certainly is an event."

The project also peaked the interest of French sales giant Celluloid Dreams.

"I actually went to Paris to pitch (Celluloid Dreams' head) Hengameh Panahi a feature project and she asked me: 'What about this '24h Berlin' thing, why haven't you offered me that?' " Kufus recalled. "I was surprised. I thought they were only interested in film. But they saw the project as very modern, very cutting edge. Very sexy."

Also very, very difficult to produce. Kufus and Heise spent 1 1/2 years in research, finding the people -- "from the mayor and decision-makers to garbage men and the homeless" -- whose stories they wanted to tell. They then corralled directors, among them Romuald Karmaker, Andreas Veiel, Volker Koepp and Rosa von Praunheim, and convinced them to shoot footage.

"There was a lot of discussion and back and forth but people were so excited about the project, they agreed to give us control over the edit and the final cut," Kufus said.

The shoot itself was just the beginning. Kufus and his team spent more than two months cataloging material before even beginning the edit. They are still in the midst of it, though a three-hour rough cut will be ready for Celluloid to show buyers in Berlin.

The full day's version will be broadcast simultaneously Sept. 5 on partner channels -- including Arte in France and RBB in Berlin -- exactly a year after the original shoot. Across Berlin, there will be public screenings, art exhibits, readings and other events to mark the occasion.

Kufus is still wading through Berlin footage but he already is looking forward to the next big project: taking the 24-hour concept to another city.

"You can easily see how this could be done in Tokyo, New York or Jerusalem," he said. "We see this as a format and, together with Celluloid Dreams, we'll be offering it to producers interested in doing the same thing in their home cities."