I sat down with actress and film-maker Katja Benrath to talk film-making, influences, the nature of art, social change, and her new film Watu Wote, which is on the Academy Award Best Live Action Short Film short list.

Katja started her career as a theatre tailor, but fell in love with film-making when she studied acting in Vienna. Her first short films (Babydoll, No one pukes in Heaven & Tilda) have been playing successfully at many international festivals. During her master studies at Hamburg Media School, she directed Where have you been, Secrecies and Watu Wote.

Watu Wote ("All of Us" in Swahili) tells the incredible true story of bus passengers in Kenya – learn more about the real tale of human courage in Watu Wote by clicking here and here as well as the link above – who stood up to terror in a time of great religious strife. For a decade, Kenya had been targeted by terrorist attacks of the Al-Shaab. An atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust between Muslims and Christians is growing. Until in December 2015, Muslim bus passengers showed that solidarity can prevail.

I highly recommend catching this incredible story of courage if you can. It is quite justly in that Best Live Action Short Film category – time will tell if this powerful film takes the Oscar.

For now, enjoy the interview with the film's director, check out the film's website, and give Watu Wote's Facebook page a like by clicking here.

Welcome to The 405 Katja! I'd like to start – if I may – by inquiring about your history. What originally got you into film-making?

I was trained to be an actress for theatre and that was what I wanted to do. I had nothing to do with film and movies and I didn't want to until I got a small part in front of the camera and immediately I fell in love. I fell in love with acting in front of and behind the camera, being truthful and telling truthful stories and being able to open up different perspectives for the audiences.

For sure you can do that in theatre as well but for me film-making has opened up a new possibility to tell stories in another way, so I tried and I loved it. I fell in love with film-making: there are so many stories out there and in my mind, that want to be told. I want to keep going - and I want to try over and over again to become a better filmmaker with each film.

Love that ethic of continuous improvement. In my opinion, the best artists in any medium know that one can never really rest on one's laurels for very long and expect to improve in one's craft. Favorite films and directors? What has been most pivotal in influencing your formation as an artist and story-teller?

I spent my youth in school theatre – I became a costume tailor and I studied acting and singing in Vienna – so my influences are not only from movies and filmmakers.

My biggest influence is the art of authenticity and how people can "create" it. I love experiencing new perspectives through art... I want to experience art and films with all my senses and I try to create something that touches people on different levels, which makes them smell, feel, hear, see and taste... and in the best case, open up new perspectives…

So my biggest influence seems to be every art project that inspires me by being truthful or creating true emotions

Authenticity is key on so many levels: without it, suspension of disbelief becomes that much harder for an audience I think, and a film becomes less than what it could be. With that said, what makes a truly great film?

The saying "it takes a village" definitely applies to making a truly great film. While the director is usually the one who gets the most recognition and attention, it is truly the collective effort of the entire production team and cast that makes a great film. When everyone buys in, as they did on Watu Wote, you can create inspiring cinema…

Handle with care as well: a film project is like a child… You need to protect it on its way into the world. You have to stand up for it. You have to give your life for it but at the same time always remember – it is just a film – not your life… because you have to stay strong for it and remember your own personal resources to being able to do so.

That reminds me of the famous quote from Jean-Pierre Melville on one's first film: "I think your first film should be made with your own blood". Granted, Watu Wote isn't your first, but one can absolutely see the sacrifice for greatness in it – it is that powerful of a picture. Which leads me to ask: Greatest triumphs as a film-maker so far?

The greatest triumph as a film-maker for me is being able to open perspectives for people and to give them the possibility to find new points of view.  I really want to tell stories that have a positive impact on people as well. Characters who exceed their subjective limits and limitations – and I want people to feel touched again… When they leave the theatre with a sense of empowerment and the feeling of being seen or able to create their lives like they want to… at least a little bit… that is my greatest triumph. I also worship discussions and opinions about my and our work.

For this short film, we won so many awards – including the Student Academy Award. Winning was an amazing and surreal experience. The Academy organized a spectacular week for us – we got to meet so many amazing and talented people – talked to and heard advice from people who are living this job and have had passion for several decades... we learned a lot. It was just great.

But I can speak for my whole team when I say that we are not making movies for Juries or awards – but for human beings...

Being able to tell this story tell it to the world – that means the world to us.

Also, Greatest challenges?

I would have to say working with a lot of people who aren't actors. Most of the people you see in this film are local citizens who volunteered to be a part of this film and they are the ones worthy of recognition for their incredible efforts and courage. A lot of them experienced similar stories or at least have family members who did – so one of the main challenges was to not re-traumatize them and give them a feeling of safety.

I think the conversations and communication were always the key. I am very thankful that they also supported me in telling a story as truthful as possible in a culture that isn't mine – which was the other huge challenge I faced.

We also had a lot of other challenges – but you should ask our amazing Producer Tobias Rosen about it… he managed everything – I don't know how – but he did (camera was stolen – main actor imprisoned for one night – everything that could happen – happened).

Wow. That's incredible everything you and your cast and crew went through. Glad it all turned out for the best and you are being recognized for superior art.

Watu Wote was truly some story. The way the Muslim passengers stood up to the fear being hoisted upon them was incredibly courageous. That must've been horrifying to live through. My question there is first, what was the spark of inspiration to tell this true story the way you did?

We read it in the newspaper and on the BBC Website and decided that this is the story we want to tell – just like that. We want people to know about it. We thought, the world needs stories like this. We didn't know it would be even more important 2 years later. The impact was huge, it was the days before Christmas.

In our world right now – in my opinion – it is necessary to focus on a great goal or good things more or at least as much as on the bad side... If we don't know where we want to be, we will never reach it. Shining a light on events where people stand up for each other, despite religious beliefs, or prejudices – just because the person next to you is a human being – might give us a chance to realize what could be possible.

These thoughts gave us the spirit to fight for the possibility to shoot this short film where it belongs... in Kenya. But attached was a huge responsibility. We didn't want to go to Kenya, "colonize" a story and tell it from a European perspective... We wanted to find out if Kenyan filmmakers were already planning to make a movie about it and/or if they would team up with us and put all our passion and skills into this project together. Kenya has great and inspiring filmmakers and we were able to do it all together. Lightbox Africa was our amazing partner during the project.

Fascinating process – and I agree the world does need these stories of courage and goodness towards others who are different – especially with the endless parade of bad news in the modern world.

I understand the fortitude of the bus passengers was really something, but was there perhaps a more personal or individual reason to want to tell this story? Also, what do you think can be done, based on this incredible story, to stand up to the kind of fear that the passengers handled when it really manifests in the world? It seems to me that we can and should all learn from the incredible example they gave.

My whole life and my whole being always focused on being fair and not judging.

As a child I didn't find it fair when someone was judged by not having or liking Barbies – wearing the wrong jeans and so on. From my early childhood I traveled and I read a lot and I am not lying when I say that it really hurt and still hurts me when people are not seen and treated as human beings. I never could stand poverty or people being hurt… I just didn't get it, that life treats people differently and that people do it as well because of so many reasons. I still don't get it. I am allergic to prejudices even though I sometimes catch myself having them.

It is this feeling that keeps me going: to change myself, to reflect and in this case to tell stories like Watu Wote – people treating each other as human beings in a situation that couldn't be more dangerous. They stood up for each other. I don't know if I would have done the same… but I would want to be like this. There are way less dangerous moments in which we could accept each other or stand up for each other… 

That ethic of continuous improvement is quite admirable. I hope many in the film's audiences will feel the same way. What do you hope audiences will carry with them after seeing Watu Wote?

I of course hope that audiences will be inspired to be more progressive and willing to learn about people who differ from them. I don't expect this film to change the world, but if I can touch even one single person through Watu Wote to simply make an effort to just be more mindful of someone who is different than them and accept that this other person chooses to live their life this way, then we have succeeded with this film.

Last, what is next for you?

I don;t want to give anything away just yet but I am working on a feature film right now in Germany and I am starting to work on one that also takes place in Africa. This film is very near and dear to my heart and I feel incredibly passionate about telling this story in a way that can hopefully inspire people.