Krakow Film Festival 2024

Ulrich Seidl’s Sparta and the question of ethics in filmmaking

ETHICS / The first season of Ji.hlava's IDFF Conference of Ethics in Filmmaking was a necessary conversation around the need for common ethical principles in documentary filmmaking.

Ulrich Seidl has made 12 feature films since he premiered in 2010 and won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice with his Dog Days. Since then, he has held on to his key staff and continued to film with his distinct signature, which is bold, disturbing and serves as an uncompromising commentary to Austrian society. His films make me think of Roy Andersson’s «Living trilogy.» Although Andersson only films in the studio and Seidl uses only real locations as an inspiration and as a form of storytelling, they share a liking for the grotesque and tragic-comic. Their protagonists are lost and displaced in their settings and fail to reach their goals. It is about «the loneliness that remains», as Seidl expressed himself in the press kit of his film Rimini.

Sparta and Rimini (2022) were initially meant to be a diptych featuring the separate lives of two brothers whose storylines ran parallel and were interwoven into one story. The films were divided in the editing process, which was a lucky choice considering the controversies around Sparta‘s making. While the awarded Rimini has travelled the festival circuit with great success, Sparta has been embargoed by several festivals. It started when Toronto International Film Festival 2022 cancelled its premiere based on the allegations published in Der Spiegel (2. September 2022). According to the article, the child actors had been exploited, and no one had informed them, nor their parents, that the film addresses paedophilia.

The festival director of Ji.hlava IDFF, Marek Hovorka, explained to the full-packed auditorium why his team had, after lengthy discussions, decided to show Sparta. «We want to create an opportunity to watch the film and continue the discussion about the ethical responsibility of filmmakers. We need open discussions so that we can arrive to some guidelines.» This is the reason why Ji.hlava Festival, in cooperation with «CEMETIK» (The Center for Media Ethics and Dialogue), has initiated the first annual Conference on Ethics in Documentary Filmmaking. Jan Motal, PhD, the founder of CEMETIK at the Masaryk University in Brno, established the NGO in 2021 as a response to the fact that Czechia lacked an industry platform where discussions and promotions of ethical guidelines could be established.

Ulrich Seidl
Ulrich Seidl

The film Sparta

Although Ulrich Seidl claims he is not a documentary filmmaker, his movies breathe with a feeling of authenticity. The films are often perceived as a cross-genre between fiction and reality. The seemingly documentary style of his features is spellbinding because of the disturbing content and the unique intimacy we get with the main characters. In Sparta, I was convinced to the very end, that the protagonist, Ewald, a non-offending paedophile, was a real person who struggled with his inner demons. Ewald tries to escape himself only to find out that he is not able to change. It was only later that I read that Ewald was played by Georg Friedrich, one of Austria’s most acclaimed actors who has appeared in more than 80 features.

Seidl and his court screenwriter Veronika Franz build their story on a real character of a German man, Markus Roth, who was arrested by Interpol’s unit in «Project Spade», which revealed a paedophilia network that involved 50 different countries. Markus Roth was a non-offended paedophile who offered free judo lessons to young boys in poor areas of Romania. He built a training studio and set up an inflatable swimming pool in his backyard where the boys could swim and play around. For many of the juveniles, Roth provided a safe haven where they would hang out more than at home. None of the boys knew that Roth was selling videos and pictures of them while they were showering and playing around.

The script follows very closely to the real story of Roth and slowly reveals to us a man who is, with growing intensity, struggling with himself. He doesn’t want to harm the boys, yet he keeps trespassing on his own morals. We don’t immediately condemn the paedophile and view him only as a predator, although the film shows this side. We are also introduced to the complexity of the matter, and we might even feel compassion for him, considering that he is alone in his mental despair.

After the projection at Ji.hlava, as the last lines of the credits ran their course, a tense 3 seconds of silence followed before the audience burst into applause. There is no doubt that Sparta is an incredibly well-done film, yet everyone left the auditorium with a disturbing notion that something wasn’t right. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the boys in this film might feel stigmatised for life by participating in this very convincing film.

Although Ulrich Seidl claims he is not a documentary filmmaker, his movies breathe with a feeling of authenticity.

The controversy over Seidl’s directing method

Like many film directors of the 1960’s new wave movement, Seidl’s cast consists of a mix of non-actors along with professionals. He creates what he calls «a living set, by which real people are performing in front of the camera; they… have to commit themselves body and soul to the role. This requires a relationship of complete trust, especially between the cameraman and the protagonists” (Press kit, 2022). In reality, it meant that the children actors were unaware of when they were filmed to capture them in their most natural way of behaving. Needless to say, parents were not allowed on the set during the shooting as Seidl always works only with a minimum staff to ensure an intimate setting. For example, during a shower scene, Ewald suddenly takes his underwear off while the boys, wearing underpants while showering, react with some uncertainty. Some get nervous, and others get a slight erection. What is apparent throughout the film is that the boys are often uncomfortable and alert. This is, of course very effective expression in the film. It is probably as close as one can get to a real situation of this kind. Yet, there is no doubt that the alertness and confusion we feel among the boys is a natural reaction. No one was clearly instructed on what would happen, no one was informed what the film was about, and it pretended that each scene was an improvisation. In reality, it was perfectly reconstructed settings where the boys were treated as lab rats for the lack of better expression.

Another problematic aspect is that the casting director was instructed to find boys from broken families. Octavian, the young boy Ewald becomes obsessed with, is a beautiful, fragile boy who resembles Tadzio (Bjorn Andresen) in Visconti’s film adaption of Death in Venice (1971). Der Spiegel revealed that his alcoholic father abused Octavian in real life. It is probably not by coincidence that Ulrich Seidl reconstructs a similar setting in his film, where Octavian is psychologically abused by his drunken stepfather, who forces him to drink alcohol. At one point, the boy shakes, and tears run down his face. He is clearly not acting at this point and reliving his past trauma. The scene is extremely uncomfortable to watch, which is the purpose, as its role is to bring us closer to the truthfulness of the story. This brings up the urgent question if we can treat social actors and especially minors in this manner. Considering that his guardians were not present during the shooting, I can easily imagine that the child might have felt trapped in the situation.

Sparta Ulrich Seidl
Sparta, a film by Ulrich Seidl

In search for ethical principles

Jan Motal responded with, «this film is a very complex example of the importance of extreme caution when filming about controversial subjects or involving experimental practices. From my point of view, it is good to prevent such problems by involving the social actors and their parents – if they are minors – as much as possible in the preparation and production of the film. It is crucial to not use them just as material and not base everything on the personal relationship between the director and the actors but to give the social actors an opportunity to participate and influence the final result. Of course, in a world where the author’s vision is sacrosanct, this is an uncomfortable notion for many filmmakers, but I think that when we work with human beings in art (or even animals!), the other being must never be just perceived as a material. Unfortunately, many filmmakers exploit people on camera for their own ends instead of treating the social-actor as a partner.»

The libertarian milieu that followed the fall of the communist regime in the 1990s indicated that ethics in media was a matter of personal intuition and the individual’s responsibility. «This is the reason why we are unable to respond adequately to today’s challenges, such as the exploitation of a social actor in documentary filmmaking.» What is needed, according to Motal, is «solidarity among the filmmakers and the common search for ethical principles and their enforcement.» That is why CEMETIK joined forces with the Ji.hlava festival and initiated the annual Conference of Ethics in Documentary Filmmaking. This is where open discussions between international academics and filmmakers will hopefully create a platform where transparency in ethical guidelines can be created for our future.

The essay is written by:
Margareta Hruza
Margareta Hruza
Hruza is a Czech/Norwegian filmmaker and a regular film critic at Modern Times Review.

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