The Duisburger Filmwoche is the annual festival for German-language documentary, held each November in the somewhat grey but culturally vibrant town of Duisburg on the banks of the Rhine.
The Duisburg event is famous within the German-speaking countries for its “debating culture,” which stems directly from several festival policies. One rule is that filmmakers must agree to be present to “defend” their films. Another is that there are no parallel screenings. Each film is followed by a lengthy discussion between filmmaker, festival team, and audience. Some of the strongest words in documentary history have undoubtedly been spoken in the back rooms of the cinema on Dellplatz, the Filmwoche’s traditional home. The overall atmosphere is a cross between film festival, academic conference, and family reunion.
In line with the Duisburg tradition, this year’s selection ranged from multiple prize-winners with lots of festival exposure – like Pripyat and Herr Zwilling & Frau Zuckermann – to new films by largely unknown directors. The goal: as usual, to define the current state of doc production in the German-speaking countries, and in general.
Longtime festival director Werner Ruzicka is supported in his duties by the Selection Committee, a small but dedicated team which helps define the program and moderate debates. It wasn’t easy to schedule a round-table discussion with Ruzicka and the entire selection committee, since they all make a point of attending all the screenings and discussions. But they made a special effort for DOX, and here are the results. A portrait of a unique festival. The participants:
Werner Ruzicka, Festival Director, and the Selection Committee: Elisabeth Büttner, Jutta Doberstein, Volker Heise, Rembert Hüser, Alexandra Schneider
DOX: Werner Ruzicka, you and the selection committee cast secret ballots to select the films for the festival. In spite of this democratic procedure, you are the festival director. Do you have veto power?
WR: It is indeed a democratic process. My vote carries the same weight as the others. When we have to choose between films, there is an open discussion. Sometimes when there’s a tie, or when I feel very strongly that a film should be shown here, I make the final decision. But out of a programme of about 30 films, that happens only once or twice.
DOX: How do you recruit potential submissions to the festival?
EB: Each of us tries to thoroughly investigate documentary production in our own country or region. We are especially interested in discovering new works, and works produced at the film schools. We try to find the broadest possible selection for the commission to look at together.
WR: We have a good network for keeping informed of works in progress and potentially interesting films. Duisburg is sometimes criticized for showing too many TV films – a rather silly criticism, since hardly any documentaries today are made without TV participation. But it’s also not a relevant critique because, through our good connections with the broadcasters we know quite early which films are in production, and so we try to show them here before they are aired.
AS: One of our priorities is discovering films that haven’t been shown at many festivals. It is increasingly the case that the same few films tend to be shown at a lot of festivals. It’s hard, especially for a ‘smaller’ film, to break into the festival circuit. One of our strengths, which we want to develop even further, is bringing little-known German-speaking films here – films that would otherwise not be given a chance at any festivals and would sink without a trace.
JD: Festivals are becoming more and more specialized. Recently we have been putting more emphasis on films that function as documentaries, but also cross the boundaries of genre and form: experimental film, fiction… This is one of our main tasks at the moment, I think: to make it known that we welcome more experimental submissions. We would love to see more genre-defying work.
WR: Another recent development is the composition of the selection committee. In the past we had several filmmakers in the committee. That was an important phase for us, where we concentrated on filmmaking as a craft. These days, there are so many subgenres and hybrids, including the development of docu-soaps, and we wanted to pay more attention to these questions. We like to think of ourselves as the theoretical watchdogs within the field. So today the committee is composed primarily of people with more theoretical backgrounds. We have deliberately moved away from journalists, film critics, and filmmakers, because we wanted to avoid people who would lobby for specific forms. No one here represents a faction. We are all curious to test out new ground, push the boundaries. Some people will probably say that we have become too intellectual, but that’s a criticism we can live with. We choose what we think are the best films and we stand behind our choices.
DOX: Duisburg is called the festival of “German-speaking” documentary. But you also show a number of films made by German-speaking directors, but spoken in other languages. So what are the criteria? Which films are eligible?
WR: At a lot of other festivals in Europe, either you get this dreadful “Eurospeak” English, or the discussions are translated. The result is that meanings get shifted and all the subtle nuances simply disappear. If you can’t follow a nuanced film with an equally complex discussion, then what’s the point? The discussions here are very important to us, so our condition is that filmmakers be able to discuss and defend their films in German. In general they should also be living in Germany, Austria or Switzerland. There are exceptions, of course. Last year Nurit Aviv, who speaks German fluently, was here with Makom Avoda. This year we invited Eyal Sivan with The Specialist. But it’s also a question of cultural politics: our mandate is of course primarily for films from Germany, Austria or Switzerland. Don’t forget that the German-speaking market counts about 90 million people. And the documentary sector in those three countries is very productive. The proportion of submissions that we have to turn down is already extremely high. So if we started getting submissions from all the European filmmakers fluent in German… We have to draw the line somewhere.
DOX: The Duisburg discussions are well-known for their unique character. As moderators, what role do you play?
VH: Ultimately the point is to establish a connection between the filmmakers and the public. One of the special things about Duisburg is that a large portion of the audience are documentary professionals of one kind or another: producers, commissioning editors, filmmakers, film critics, financiers and so on. This is a meeting place for them. And because of the way the festival is organized, with one film screened at a time, and a discussion following every film, people are always present, they don’t disappear off to another cinema. Which means there is a tremendous concentration on the issues. It should be an encounter among colleagues, whether they are sitting up on the podium or not.
JD: Very often the most interesting insights about a film come from the audience, and not from the filmmakers themselves.
WR: Today the number of public events where everyone can speak their minds freely without compromise is rather small. We attract a lot of young people, who have heard about the festival and about Duisburg’s “debating culture.” Our goal is to create a climate in which colleagues can pursue their common interests together.
DOX: So much is happening in the documentary sector right now, with the new media and the proliferation of festivals, markets, and TV channels. How do you think things will change?
RH: I think the strict division of genres – between documentary, fiction, experimental and so on – has begun to erode. Sometimes it’s more interesting to reverse the terms. Right now, for instance, I am interested in documentary elements in fiction film. It’s important not to be too conservative about the “essence” of documentary.
WR: Alexander Kluge, who was here today for the book launch (*see News section), has a theory that the principle of “documentary thinking” is very relevant right now, especially in terms of the new media. Kluge argues that with the internet, the big corporations no longer have the monopoly on information. You can get your facts and information independently on the net. So in effect the boom boosts documentary principles. Some might say that’s too optimistic. But don’t forget, Kluge was also one of the first to point out the cultural potential of television, and to fight for more access to airtime for independent documentary filmmakers.
Another factor is the docu-soap, which we have included in our programme for the first time this year. The docu-soap could be a reconciliation between the principles of documentary filmmaking, and the public’s demand for entertainment.
VH: I think in the next few years we will see a big increase in documentary material on television, especially in the form of docu-soaps or thematic multi-part series. There is obviously a demand for this kind of serial programming. But the individual documentary, the feature-length 35mm film with Dolby sound, will become much rarer. And also much more clearly market-oriented, with high production values geared toward theatrical release, and a structure borrowed from fiction film. Like Buena Vista Social Club, which coincides so well with current trends. In 10 or 15 years the feature documentary will be a rare occurrence, with just a few big releases a year accompanied by major media hype. And a few stubborn independent filmmakers who spend 20 years working on a film. In the USA you can see this development already. It’s not a question of quality vs quantity – a lot of the series might be good. But that’s not the point. A shift is occurring, and it’s occurring in that direction.
Arte Prize (German Film Critics’ Prize)
Mendel lebt by Hans-Dieter Grabe
Dezember 1 – 31 by Jan Peters
Young Filmmakers’ Prize
Divina Obsession by Volko Kamensky