AS THE BERLIN International Film Festival turned sixty this year, selected films often looked to the past and amalgamated moments of an era or a movement. Over at the Panorama section, home to established masters, novice filmmakers and provocateurs of all kinds, programmer Wieland Speck was doing what comes as second nature after his 28 years at the Berlinale – sculpting a dauntless collection of progressive worldviews, of both fact and fiction, which unites artistic vision with commercial interest.
As a director, producer, writer, actor and curator, Wieland Speck has spent most of his life immersed in arts and culture, though more prevalently, the course of the evolution and agitation of socio-political movements they chronicle. With the Panorama Dokumente section as his pulpit from which to showcase some of the worlds most daring and poignant factual cinema, Speck could be considered a connoisseur of documentary epochs, from their trends to their transgressions.
AFTER THE BERLINALE dust had settled last March, DOX sat down with Mr. Speck to speak about his programme, the power of documentary and the radical worlds that move from the fringe to the cinematic center:
– How would you describe a Panorama documentary?
– One that deals with social issues but does it in a way that not only preaches to the converted, but reaches out to an art-house cinema audience – achieving that with a very smart use of the aesthetical means that are needed to make a good film. So Panorama means good filmmaking and a good subject matter that is either aesthetically, artistically, or most of the time, politically interesting to Berlin audiences and to the expectations of the buyers.
– Since its conception, was the Panorama always considered an essential showcase for poignant documentary cinema?
– That was always the case, especially in the ’80s when the Western world was more politically active. Back then we had lots of activist documentaries, especially since a constant focus in the program has been queer filmmaking. So there was always those films that dealt with fighting for the rights of queer people in Western societies, especially coming from the American documentaries. And then of course there was the topic of AIDS, which hit the films in 1985. So we had all the activist films of that period showing how much power there is in filmmaking. When we look at it from the queer angle, the queer movement actually started with film. The post-war queer movement in Germany got its major boost by Rosa von Praunheim’s documentary, It’s Not the Homosexual Who is Perverse But the Situation in Which He Lives, which he made in 1970. In America, there was Boys in the Band by William Friedkin, based on the theatre play whose historical background we had a documentary about this year, called Making The Boys. It’s a very beautiful documentary, exactly one of those docs that we love to have in Panorama. This means it’s a grassroots documentary. It’s a work with a lot of heart, a lot of understanding and a lot of outlook into history in such a way that it helps us to form the present and the future.
– HAVE DOCUMENTARY trends changed over the years, in terms of activism?
– No, not really. You don’t see the oldfashioned fight films anymore, as I call them. But what you get of course are films from countries where five years ago it would have been unimaginable to get films with certain content – politically, be it Iran, or genderpolitics, be it India and Paraguay. So you can detect by watching the documentaries, at least in the selection we made, a kind of time-warp situation that is happening on the planet by seeing where and at what stage emancipation is happening. Political issues like democracy, the dictatorship of the majority, power and the power of men over woman. So you have all these issues everywhere in every society, just on different levels of a time scale. But in a film program you can watch it all, and see how the differences between cultures that are usually emphasized might even shrink to zero.
– You mentioned a certain power in filmmaking. Do you feel documentaries have the power to influence socio-political action? Do you put that responsibility on film?
– Film can have that impact. Many elements have to get together in order to say this thing moves that. But the power is always there and a festival is there to inspire other festivals. Hundred and hundreds of film programmers from all over the world come to Berlin to see the films for the first time and maybe bring them to their countries. Hopefully the market jumps on it as well and creates a life for the film in different countries after the festival. So it starts here with the content of the film, of the idea that a film is transporting.
– But is there real risk-taking in documentary cinema? And does risk-taking make for better films?
– We see tons of risk-free documentaries, but I would rather be moved by a daring or brave
approach. And any theme can be approached bravely and daringly, even the tamest one. Having said that, risk-taking in filmmaking is not linked in any way to the quality of the finished film.
– So what are your choices in recent years of docs that used a daring approach? Can you give examples of courageous films?
– Improvvisamente l’inverno scorso by Gustav Hofer and Luca Ragazzi, for diving into the homophobic world of right wing Italy. A Jihad For Love by Parvez Sharma, for addressing the homophobe Islamic world. Also Stake, for addressing gender emancipation in a time of dangerous anti-tolerant developments in Indonesia. Michael Winterbottom’s The Shock Doctrine, for pulling the veil from the face of capitalism. Garapa by Jose Padilha, for leaving no space for the spectator to be rescued in the face of hunger, misery and debasement. The Yes Men Fix The World for showing the world that resistance is possible and very energizing. The Iranian doc Red, White And The Green by Nader Davoodi, and Postcard To Daddy by Michael Stock, for addressing child abuse, one of the world’s biggest problems, in the most authentic and truthful manner.
– WHAT ABOUT extreme perspectives in documentary-filmmaking? How much is too much? Is it effective?
– We screened Postcard To Daddy this year, which is a very strong film on child abuse, and it really got the audience. I am really proud of that filmmaker that he managed to be so courageous and truthful about it. You don’t feel like he’s lying because he doesn’t know how to deal with the taboo, but he wants to tackle it anyway. So I’m not shying away from extreme perspectives when I think they make sense, when they do something that we can process.
– Is there a common thread between experimental art-house docs and the American standard?
– It is actually a big problem for us when we watch hundreds and hundreds of American documentaries that are made with the same knitting pattern. It’s boring. Even European documentary filmmakers adopt that style. Americans especially tend to have people talking to you, as if you are a spectator, as if you were stupid. They tell you how great the person in the film is a hundred times in 90 minutes. Instead of giving you the choice to discover that person, they simply tell you. So this is totally not what audiences are cheerful about.
– Do you feel these American docs compromise a vision or artistic freedom?
– The blueprint kind of American doc carries not much artistry. It’s rather a product format driven by its content. For example, it comes with a lot of verbal volume plus Muzak. It is the saddest film form of all.
– Is there a particular region of the world where you feel at this moment in time the strongest work is coming from?
– I look at documentaries everywhere. I usually tend to have quite a high number of German films and American films. This is because the Americans are, in quite a few subject matters, front-runners in development. And creativity is usually found more in European documentaries. With documentaries you have to be careful and not overload the audience. This year I had to be careful about how far you go with falling in love with subject matters, when the form is just a little too poor. Not poor in the sense of Dilettante, that can be charming, because it can bare creativity that is terribly needed. Inspiration and creativity are terribly needed in documentary, because we totally lost the old-fashioned filmmaking of documentaries. So everyone who’s making films now of course grew up with television, so this has changed tremendously. Then you have sound bites and picture bites that are coming from the generation that grew up with the Internet. So filmmaking’s getting more and more like a puzzle, and that needs a lot of creativity and inspiration in order to focus and find a form, or what you want to inspire in the audience.
– Do you have an ideal direction you see the Panorama moving in?
– I’m trying to detect every year what the Zeitgeist has in petto, and usually you want to be ahead of the Zeitgeist. You want to create a programme that inspires the Zeitgeist to move ahead instead of just affirmation. So I try to figure out what is happening in the world, what’s in the air. I try to influence and I also have to recreate or create audiences for films. So it’s a question of trust between the programmer and the audience. With these elements I try to have a programme every year that later stands out as something strong and special.