On a quest to identify Germany’s newest doc stars, RealScreen queried festival heads, production companies, distribs and industry groups in the know. Four promising up-and-comers emerged. Each splashed into the international spotlight with their first feature-length film, tackling subjects that range from communist musicals and culture to identity and suicide. KIMBERLEY BROWN offers a preview of who they are and what they’re up to.
Based in: Berlin, Germany
Breakthrough doc: Dirt for Dinner (2000)
Most graduates of the German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB) dream of the day their reputation precedes them. Not so for Branwen Okpako. Reflecting on how she convinced normally guarded people – politicians, journalists, prisoners – to speak candidly for her graduation film Dirt for Dinner, Okpako credits her anonymity. ‘I was just an empty piece of paper,’ she says. ‘I was just so strange to them that they were very unthreatened by me. Plus, I was pregnant.’
Dirt for Dinner is a DM250,000 (US$116,000) feature documentary that tells the story of Sam Meffire, East Germany’s first black police officer. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, Meffire became famous as a symbol of the united Germany. In 1996, he left the force and is now serving jail time for armed robbery.
Okpako first heard of Meffire when a friend brought a newspaper article about him to her attention. After some research, she realized Meffire’s history paralleled Germany’s history. ‘Following his life, you follow the history of Germany,’ says Okpako. ‘His interactions, who he met, how he clashed with and got sucked into the whole Western media circus, and the loss of identity that happened after the Wall came down. It’s a theme that exists in Germany very strongly.’ The 75-minute film has played at festivals around the world, including the Berlinale and Toronto’s Hot Docs, and has aired on ZDF/3sat(which contributed production costs) and arte.
It’s not surprising that Okpako’s film tackles issues of identity, as Okpako represents many nations, both within and outside of the film business. Born in Nigeria, she carries a British passport (her mother is Welsh) and lives in Germany. Given this, she isn’t worried about her ability to speak to an international audience. ‘My vibe is not German,’ Okpako says. ‘My eye is the eye of somebody who is not from here. In that sense, an international audience will have something in common with me. By the same token, you have to be involved enough to care. Sometimes when people make films about ‘other people’ there’s a certain distance – it’s almost like going to the zoo. I don’t do it that way because although I’m a foreigner, I’m involved through the fact that I’ve lived here for 10 years and have a family here. I have a personal interest vested in German stories.’
Okpako is currently raising funds for two docs. One will examine socially potent topics through the world of professional soccer. The second will relate an incident considered a racial attack, without letting the audience know the race of the protagonists. Says Okpako, ‘It’s like an experiment to see how far it’s possible to leave [race] out completely and still understand the human condition.’
Based in: Berlin, Germany
Breakthrough doc: Havanna Mi Amor (2000)
Uli Gaulke’s route to documentaries was not direct. In fact, his passion for film wasn’t discovered until he took a job as a projectionist at the local cinema. At that time, he was studying computer science at university. Gaulke enrolled in film school, but struggled with fiction before turning to docs. ‘I found the figures in my scripts were not realistic,’ says Gaulke. ‘You see a lot of bad fiction films in German cinema and it was not my interest to bring out another.’
Gaulke admits his ongoing interest in fiction is evident in his documentary work. ‘I shoot my documentaries with cinematic moments,’ he explains. ‘I’m not interested in pure reality, I’m interested in creating reality. It’s important to find good figures who play their life. I need so-called actors of reality.’
So far, finding interesting characters hasn’t proved difficult. In 1997, Gaulke flew to Cuba for the first time to shoot the 30-minute doc Who is Last in Line? for orb, a regional outlet of German pubcaster ard. The film focuses on a schizophrenic patient in a psychiatric hospital who plays trumpet for a band composed of fellow patients. While there, he met Jose, an eccentric television repairman. Jose became the inspiration for Gaulke’s graduation film, Havanna Mi Amor, which peers into the everyday lives and relationships of Cubans whose televisions have broken down. Through their stories, a picture of life under Communist rule is revealed. The film won the 2001 German national award for best documentary and was voted best debut film at the 2001 Cinéma du Réel festival held in Paris, France, among other accolades.
Gaulke says his travels to Cuba allowed him to comprehend his own country’s history. ‘It was in Cuba that I understood what happened here,’ he says. ‘It was important to go outside [Germany] after the breaking of the Wall. I was 20 years old at the end of the ’80s and it was the beginning of my life when the change came. But, to describe what happened here and what the changes are – for me it was better to describe those in Cuba. I can relate to a lot of things in Cuba because of my East German childhood. The Cuban films are a view of my own history.’
Gaulke’s current project indicates the director is ready to take a more direct look at German society. Titled Gladis (w/t) and budgeted for DM25,000 (US$11,500), the film will follow a 28-year-old Cuban girl who moved to Hamburg after she wed a German man in Havana last May. ‘I will script her view of Germany for one year,’explains Gaulke. ‘I want to describe the realities of the situation and the connection between Germans and foreigners. I am very impressed with the scenes [so far], because it’s the first time she has traveled outside of her land.’ Both ZDF and ARTE are already on board.
Based in: Berlin, Germany
Breakthrough doc: East Side Story (1997)
‘I was always fascinated with people who were trying to push the borders to see what was beyond it,’ comments Dana Ranga.
The Romanian-born director explains how she latched onto the idea for her current film International Blue, a feature-length doc, produced in collaboration with Peter Rommel Productions in Berlin, that investigates how the experience of being in space affects the lives of astronauts and cosmonauts back on Earth. Austrian pubcaster ORF is already committed to the dm1 million (US$463,000) film that will include galactic voyagers from Russia, Germany and the U.S. Ranga’s fascination could easily apply to herself. Her first feature doc, East Side Story, looks at musical comedies produced by Iron Curtain countries between 1930 and 1974. The film played to acclaim at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, was broadcast on hbo, and enjoyed a U.S. theatrical release, proving Ranga’s knack for attracting large audiences to obscure topics.
Despite her early success, Ranga says she still struggles with the funding process. ‘I thought if I showed that I can do a good quality project, I [only had] to prove it once. The more difficult the task, the easier it would be to do the second and the third one. That was a big illusion and I think it’s time things changed. I think it helped me to get the research money [for International Blue]. I think they thought I did a good job [with East Side Story]. But, I don’t think they considered that I brought a German film around the world. They haven’t realized it yet.’
Taking films around the world is among Ranga’s top priorities. Looking into her future, she hopes to at least reach festival audiences with smaller projects produced on alternative media that require less funding muscle. ‘I’m going to use Super 8 and dv, because I’m more interested in the idea and the message than in [the
format]. I’m more interested in communicating,’ she explains. ‘It’s also less expensive and I think in a way that’s better. Film has become much too expensive an art – it’s taking film away from art. You need to work and be creative with the moving image, whether it’s on Super 8 or dv or on 35mm. You need to train and discover your own language within the moving image, and with sound.’
Based in: Cologne, Germany
Breakthrough doc: It Should Have Been Nice After That (2000)
It’s rare that a filmmaker’s first trip behind the camera ends with a successful feature film. Given this, It Should Have Been Nice After That is exceptional, as Karin Jurschick hadn’t planned to make a documentary when she began shooting. In search of explanations for why her mother, at
42 years old, committed suicide, Jurschick decided to reunite with her estranged father, now 92 years old. She brought along a mini DV camera to record her childhood home and the device peaked the interest of her father, a retired engineer with an ongoing love for machines.
‘[With the camera], I was able to talk to my father in a very different way. We were out of the father-daughter thing,’ she says. ‘There is a scene where I turn the camera around and hold it behind my head. My father comes up behind me and wants to look at what I’m doing, and then we start a discussion.’
When Jurschick realized her father’s personal stories intertwined with German history she decided her footage was the beginning of a film. Initial funds for the DM120,000 (US$56,000) doc came from Filmbüro nrw, a regional cultural funding body, with ZDF/3sat contributing after production began. The film played at the 2001 Berlinale, where it scooped up an International Film Critics Association award, and is presently enjoying an extended theatrical run throughout Germany.
Although this was the first time Jurschick worked the camera, the former print editor is not a newcomer to film and television. In 1984 – while a student of theater, television and film theory – Jurschick helped found Feminale, Cologne’s international women’s film festival. Later, as a freelance journalist, she traveled to Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia to assist a friend who was filming a short piece on the art scene. Says Jurschick, ‘We also looked for the women working there, because often their voice isn’t heard.’ Jurschick went on to make an eight-minute television magazine segment about female war reporters.
After It Should Have Been Nice After That, Jurschick completed a 45-minute film about artist Birgit Hein for pubcaster WDR/3sat in Germany. She is currently in the conceptual stage of her next project, for which she plans to keep control of the camera. ‘At first I thought I would just do the one film, but now… I feel like a documentary filmmaker and I hope I will be one.’