Germany in Autumn

By Pepe Petos

mirush-marius-holst.jpgMirush, 2007

Two very distinctive German festivals profile fascinating documentary and fiction work by emergent makers

Internationales Filmfestival of Mannheim-Heidelberg 

There’s something fresh and new coming out of Germany, something that has actually lasted 56 years: the Internationales Filmfestival of Mannheim-Heidelberg, a festival dedicated to Auteur cinema with a special support for newcomers.

It’s very difficult to get a film widely seen, or even screened, especially if you are a newcomer; but sometimes what is really difficult is to finish it, as UPA shows. This self-reflexive work traces the elaboration of a film and brings into the frame all those elusive elements that aren’t taught in film schools and that no ‘how to’ manual can factor in: the human relations, with their egos and dreams, their drugs and their faults, their ideas and ideals.

hard-hearted-aleksei-mizgiryov.jpgHard-Hearted, 2007 

Close attention to some of those human factors is perhaps what makes fictions more credible, more likely to help us ‘suspend our disbelief’ in its temporal and spatial amalgamation. We can be one minute in Romania under Ceaucescu and the next sharing a room in Italy with a cleaner or about to become the next face for a major fashion label as Cover Boy… (The Last Revolution), the extremely well made and politically subtle recipient of both the ‘Recommendations of the Jury of Cinema Owners’ and The ‘Special Mention of the Ecumenical Jury’ displays.

This amalgamation also blends in our previous film experiences, taking us from one film to the next with knowledge of all the films watched. This is why I had such a rewarding time at Mannheim-Heidelberg. I was constantly surprised and mostly delighted even though a great deal of the stories were told ‘through the eyes of a child’. There was energy, there was risk and with it failures and successes. Although Mirush, The Hard-Hearted and Estrellita - respective winners of the ‘Main Award of Mannheim-Heidelberg’, the ‘Rainer Werner Fassbinder Prize’ and the ‘Special Award of the International Jury’- had as major characters a child, they mostly avoid the fairytale ending. In their search for a family and a place in society (fast changing and sometimes corrupt), and in hope of a better life, looking to strengthen the ties that ground them in the past so they can use the present to build a better future, they embodied the words used by the festival director during his opening speech: “if we don’t change anything now, nothing will remain as it was.” He was referring to the many changes that this edition of the festival brought, not least the 10,000 seat cinema tent built on the banks of the Rhine, the 750 seater in the centre of Heidelberg and the provision of German subtitles for every film.

outside-love-daniel-espinosa.jpgOutside Love, 2007 

No picture can record the passing of time forever but, by its recording the changes in the passing, we can evaluate the losses and gains of a particular journey. The ‘Special Mention of the International Jury’ winner, Dead End, a collaboration by six filmmakers looked at the effects of globalisation by way of the dismantling of the rail track in four Brazilian states, while Feet Unbound takes a strand of Chinese history by documenting what the official history frequently forgets: the 2000 women who, from 1934 to 1937, fought and took part in the Long March.

Present-day China provides the ironic means for another kind of investigation into disappearance and modernity with The Orchard, about a man who, in his pursuit of a kidney for his sick mother, buries the bodies of involuntary ‘donors’ in the eponymous location. Then there is that other state of almost disappearance called jail, with its effects and consequences on the women who day after day suffer the humiliations and abuse of the guards as they try to visit their sons and husbands inside, as depicted in Through Her Own Eyes; winner of the ‘Special Mention of the International Jury’ and a fictional film where many of the women are actually played by the real-life mothers and wives who appeared in an earlier documentary on the same subject by the same director.

One of the most attractive features of the festival are the ‘Mannheim Meetings’. By connecting ideas with people, by introducing writers to producers, to directors, to actors, etc, they try to help in the realisation of that auteurist - if communal- dream that is film. There are several stages beforehand at which one can submit an idea or a project and the festival sends them to hundreds of interested producers. Then, during the festival, meetings are arranged in an effort to put together the necessary elements to take that project to fruition. New directors are actively encouraged to participate and submit ideas (check the festival website for information and announcements).

desierto-sur-shawn-garry.jpgDesierto Sur, 2008

I hope to return next year to Mannheim-Heidelberg. I might even take a project with me. I feel that, like the river Rhine outside the cinema tent, with its quiet and serene appearance, a closer look would reveal a tremendous undercurrent, one that can bring new directors and works clearly to the surface.

50th Internationales Leipziger Festival Fur Dokumentar Und Animationsfilm

Germany provided me with another pleasure two weeks later, at the 50th Internationales Leipziger Festival Fur Dokumentar Und Animationsfilm. The only drawback was time, as my very brief stay didn’t allow me to fully experience this year’s anniversary events.

I attended the masterclass by the always inspiring Patricio Guzman and managed to see Jean Paul, a nine minute documentary that created some controversy in the German media when it was reported that the film showed a man in Cameroon who was left for days chained to a tree to die. By the time the crew came back with help, he was already dead. A more optimistic story was told in Don’t Get Me Wrong, the Romanian film winner of the ‘Golden Dove’ prize granted by the ‘International Jury for Documentary Film’. This bold and delightful work introduces us to the gracious and dignified world of the Calugareni Neuropsychiatric Centre. Through its observational style we see the respect, help, care and understanding with which the inmates treat each other. We need more films like this one, films that allow us to see our social institutions and how they work or could work. Similarly, Juizo (Behave) follows several youths as they face the judge and the daily routines of the reform school to which they are sent. Since the real youths could not be legally filmed, the directors used youngsters from the same place, of the same age and sometimes even perpetrators of the same crimes; only the adults played themselves.

upa-tamae-garateguy-santiago-giralt.jpgUpa, 2007 

Playing themselves (or a version of) is the main device used in Hills Of Disorder. In this anthropological reconstruction we travel back and forth in the life of a Brazilian Indian who lived for several years out of his primitive and isolated indigenous community and with the ‘civilized’ man, the same ‘man’ who crafted The Most Secret Place On Earth - The CIA’s Covert War in Laos; a film that, although very well researched and documented, left a trace of disappointment due to its dull formulaic approach.

But Leipzig was much more than the films shown and, during this 50th anniversary, a series of parallel events took place: the publication of an anniversary book, an exhibition of original documents from the history of the festival, and a symposium where founders of the festival, participants and experts talked about Leipzig and its social and historical importance, an importance that I hope will make this festival endure for another 50 anniversaries like this one

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Pepe Petos is a writer, lecturer and film-maker. He lives in London.