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American Women's Club of Hamburg

Documentaries are the real thing



Documentary films seem to be on the rise. The Filmfest Hamburg showed 31 documentaries or almost 20% of the total films at the 24th Filmfest Hamburg. One can argue about the definition of “documentary.” Generally, it’s thought that a documentary film must show real people and their lives and achievements. It would feature someone still living who can speak on screen about personal perceptions and accomplishments, allowing for comments from outsiders. Or it can be about someone who has passed away, with old film material and archives brought forth to remind us of this person, with both old commentaries, and new impressions from persons still living, speaking from memories. What about a film that presents the life of a real person, already long gone, with actors who play the various phases of that person’s life, with perhaps new scenes woven into the plot for which there is not always proof that they are true? In Germany this is called a Doku-Drama. MARIE CURIE was a Doku-Drama at the festival. But, what about THE FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS STORY? It retells the life of Jenkins with the aid of old film property and interviews with people who remember Jenkins, interwoven with scenes of actors portraying the life of Jenkins and stars Joyce diDonato as Jenkins. The festival directors solved the problem of “documentary” by calling this and similar films “hybrids,” i.e., neither one nor the other.

The Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein (FFHSH) sponsored a panel discussion called “Who Let the Docs Out?”. Experts discussed the future of documentaries in German cinema. The FFHSH hands out several million euros each year to both established and novice filmmakers to help them produce works of art. This year 13 FFHSH-sponsored films showed at the Filmfest and nine of them were documentaries. Panel participants were, for example, Peter Jäger from Belgium, founder of Autlook Filmsales in 2005, which distributes documentary films worldwide. Ben Kampas, from Scotland, founded Film & Campaign Ltd and supports documentary filmmakers worldwide. Maria Köpf represented FFHSH; Matthias Elwardt reported on his own experiences as manager of Abaton Cinema. Helge Albers has almost 20 years of producing films. Moderator was Arne Birkenstock, who has received awards for his own documentary films, as well as films he produced. This high-carat group of ten participants in all discussed the future of documentary films in general. Naturally, every director wants his film to run forever and reap lots of money. Perhaps there are too many documentaries, or too many films overall (a problem that won’t go away considering that more and more young people chose a film career). Perhaps one should be more specific and weed out films which probably won’t have a future, or at least select a few for targeted PR. Actually, in the end, nobody really knows what will work. A film like I am Breathing (2013), about a man slowly dying, should have repelled viewers, but, quite the opposite; it was a success. A film about eating insects? No problem. Serve insects at the film, so that people can experience it firsthand. There is nothing wrong with having a free showing to a select audience. These people will tell their friends, who will come later and buy tickets. Show the film as a fund raiser and give 50% to charity. Show the film in real time. A good example of real time is the documentary WEINER, considering that this Anthony Weiner caused Hilary Clinton problems with her recent candidacy for president of the U.S. one week before the election. You can’t get more real time than that.

All the documentaries I saw were well received with cinemas full of enthusiastic viewers. American-made films were very popular. GIMME DANGER by Jim Jarmusch featured Iggy Pop, the frontman of the punk rock group The Stooges. The title comes from their song “Gimme Danger, Little Stranger” from 1973. Iggy Pop, real name: James Osterberg, now 69 years old, has survived his partners in the band, which was invited into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010. Iggy is still his skinny outrageous self and speaks eagerly about the years in the band, which caused an upheaval in the music world, only to be now acclaimed as a landmark way ahead of its time. It was aimed to appeal to “people, who in their adulthood did not forget their childhood,” of which there was a cinema full in Hamburg. In 1999 Jim Jarmusch was honored in Hamburg, where he showed his film Ghost Dog and received the festival’s Douglas Sirk Award for his lifetime of film-making.

Another American documentary is NATIONAL BIRD. Three former members of the U.S. army, Heather, Daniel, and Lisa, come forward in real whistleblower manner to report on their own, job-oriented actions sending drones to attack individuals in foreign countries, supposedly unfriendly to the U.S., although war was not declared. Heather does not know the number of deaths for which she is responsible. Lisa said that with drones, borders no longer matter. We meet a family of 23 in Afghanistan which was attacked while innocently driving along. Several people were killed and some will be physically handicapped forever. We see real film material over and over again as the drone attacks and the people far below run in all directions. Independent global news Democracy Now reports to its 700 stations, including TIDE television in Hamburg. Billed as a U.S. film, it is also German in that the director, Sonia Kennebeck, grew up in Hamburg-Billstedt. She studied in the U.S. and now divides her time between the U.S. and Hamburg. For the last 15 years, this 35-year-old, very attractive director, has had a successful career, filming for German television. This is her first full-length film, funded in part by the Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein. It premiered at the Berlinale and will open in German cinemas early 2017.

Also well-received were German documentaries, specifically Hamburg-oriented films. BONDENERHEBUNGEN is a 20-minute lesson on the future of the former train station in Hamburg-Altona. A new station is under construction. The old site is being completely torn down, with a few tree stumps witness to a former life. Directors Doro Carl and Claudia Reiche interview people who have been forced to leave their apartments and find it impossible to pay the rent in other locations. The newly renovated area is called Neue Mitte and will feature a park.

Joseph Wutz directed KALIFORIEN HAT KEIN KINO (California has no cinema) about one lone cinema in northern Germany. Wutz goes to Prerow in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, near the North Sea, where he meets Frank Schleich in his Cinema Paradiso, the only cinema anywhere between Rostock and Stralsund. Business is good in the summer, when 50,000 tourists storm the beaches. Perhaps two to five viewers will show up for any one film during the winter. Wutz films a typical day (sometimes behind the camera himself) of Schleich living in the backrooms of the cinema, finding a Chinese wife on the internet, who is willing to share this isolated life-style, and enjoying a newborn daughter. Schleich enlarges the refreshment stand as a sure way to earn more. Director Wutz lives in Hamburg and is the general manager of ARIES Images, which represents films: producing marketing, and public relations. Wutz was the head of the Filmfest Hamburg 1995-2002, before turning it over to Alfred Wiederspiel.

Students from the Hamburger Hochschule für bildende Künste (Hamburg College of Art) presented eight short films under the title EINE FILMARBEIT. In preparation they discussed and researched under the guidance of their teachers Professor Pepe Draquart and Bernd Schoch. They agreed on an overall theme: Arbeit (labor). Naturally, each student could interpret this differently, which made the results so interesting. The first one showed a man repeatedly threading film into a projector in Hamburg’s own Savoy Cinema. One young man stood at his apartment window, organizing events on his mobile phone – his type of work – while watching men outside doing heavy construction. (The director filmed it on his own mobile phone!) One student showed his father chopping wood for ten minutes, until everyone in the audience was exhausted. One photographed workers as if they were fish in an aquarium: behind the glass at a theater ticket window, or cooks behind glass in a restaurant or a lone man sitting behind security glass in a gas station at night. We saw scenes in a Hamburg job placement office (Hamburger Arbeitsbehörde) and Hamburg-Billstedt and the subway station Landungsbrücke. After the film, which ended with enthusiastic applause, we talked to the friendly students. I asked their teacher, considering that this was kind of an exam, how did he grade them and which one got the best grade? He laughed and said, “Everyone got an A.” Perhaps they will all compete next year at Hamburg’s short film festival. At any rate, they have a certain future in the world of film.

Read about other Filmfest documentaries: WEINER, LIFE ANIMATED, MY OWN PRIVATE WAR, MY AUNT IN SARAJEVO, LAST CONVERSATIONS. And then there is the mockumentary: SPLIT.

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