«The temptation is far too big.» This sentiment about organised crime is expressed by one of a group of men chatting in a Späti (one of those small, ubiquitous German corner-stores, where you can buy snacks or stand around a table having a casual drink). They’re among those with a hand in Germany’s illegal underground who open up to directors and in Another Reality,na documentary about that provides a glimpse into their daily lives. The seductive nature of this route to easy money comes up numerous times in this winner of the Audience Award at DOK.fest Munich, which recently screened at the Locarno International Film Festival. But this is not a film that demonises career criminals or simplifies their lifestyle as some kind of moral descent into depravity. Nor does it glamourise their gangster personae, as with a measured concern for the sociological context of their alternative economy, it shows how ambition sometimes finds an outlet when conventional pathways to success are restricted for marginalised communities.
One thing is immediately obvious when we see this trio gathered in the Späti: none of them are white. The racial dimension that informs their complicated relationship to German identity is overtly discussed, as they describe the outsider stigma that marks them out in the nation’s conventional workforce and society, where they feel dismissed under the derogatory term «Kanake» (denoting someone with Turkish, Arab or Southern European roots), and regarded as foreign even if born in Germany. «If my name were Achim rather than Ahmed, the world would look different,» says one. An acquaintance in the store, who is surprised to hear they feel German, is asked what he would think if he saw them on the street, and says he’d assume they were «thugs or something» — and that while some would say they don’t belong, they all «have to make the best of it». The exchange is friendly, as in many situations in which discrimination is structurally normalised, and illuminates how a distinct sense of otherness almost pushes the gangsters to conform to others’ stereotyped expectations, and to turn to ingenuity in bucking a system almost designed to keep them down.
Berlin, in particular, is a «powder keg» where the gangsters «all think they live in an American movie»
Family clans dominate gang structure in Germany, we see in a film that spreads its net wide to Berlin, Hamburg, Duisburg-Marxloh, Essen, and Gelsenkirchen. Blood ties increase the sense of close-knit trust within gangs that one’s back is covered, but also personalise the potential stakes in vengeance (the murder of an innocent relative as a way to hurt the prime target is not out of the ordinary). Neutral crime world «justices of the peace» are able to mediate in cases of revenge, determining compensation money to be paid between rivals so that testimony is kept out of the official courts and the alternate economy as a whole is protected. Berlin, in particular, is a «powder keg» where the gangsters «all think they live in an American movie,» we hear — a city where feuds can easily escalate.
A quicker route
Robbery, blackmail, extortion, drug-dealing: these are some of the income avenues. These crimes offer a much quicker route than legal entrepreneurship to «making a million» (which we’re told is everyone’s dream on the street), and the pleasure in driving «a dope Benz» and other luxury markers of status is a clear motivator. But whether it’s worth it presses heavily on the gangsters. It takes a toll on their nerves: the loneliness of putting one’s family in danger, and never being able to switch off from a paranoia that prompts one to always sit facing the door in any venue. And of course, the possibility of jail time. Though prison becomes just a «college on how to be a better criminal» for most inside, the new contacts it provides and pooling of methodology contributing to very high recidivism rate.
Parham, a hip-hop star who is now back on the straight and narrow after being distracted from his childhood dream of music by the lure of selling drugs, is candid about his chequered past but feels little pride in it. Being a doctor who had cured someone with HIV would be way cooler than having a criminal past, he muses. He now rakes in millions as an artist, over the table, and while his lyrics are still as macho as they come, he is trying to redefine his sense of masculinity, he says, by being a good father to his young daughter, rather than through more aggressive forms of posturing. Another former criminal now runs his own shops, and is on the other side of the «cat-and-mouse game». The alternative economy can be like quicksand for some of these citizens and residents of Germany, we hear; for others, it’s just a memory.