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.

Werner Ruzicka

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?

Elisabeth Büttner

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.

Alexandra Schneider

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?

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