In Austria several public bodies provide film funding for documentaries, giving filmmakers a base on which to deal with Austrian issues, instead of having to please several international co-producers. The filmmakers return the favour by making thoroughly researched documents on complicated historical and contemporary issues in their own country. TUE STEEN MÜLLER saw a selection of the new docs at the Diagonale fest in Graz this past March.

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

As a first time visitor to the Diagonale 2003 in Graz, it was hard not to be impressed by the visibility of the national Austrian film festival. The festival was held in a nice city proudly presenting its Cultural Capital 2003 programme on each and every street corner on both sides of the river. A huge banner on the mountainside formulated a protest against the war. Very readable indeed, lit by a beautiful warm summer weather bringing festival guests to the squares with their red and white Diagonale paper bags full of documentation on films, discussions and special events. Diagonale seems to function perfectly as a national festival: lots of people attend, cinemas are full, press coverage is extensive. No complaining at all, on the contrary. On opening night, festival leaders Christine Dollhofer and Constantin Wulff received a minute-long ovation for their leadership that is now ending, Wulff of his own free will, and Dollhofer because of politics and her opposition to the right-wing Minister of Culture.

I was there to watch new Austrian documentaries. Of the sixteen listed in the catalogue, I watched eight. This year there were no new films from Ruth Beckermann (Jenseits des Krieges/East of War), Michael Glawogger (Megacities) or Nicholas Geyerhalter (Pripyat, Elsewhere), whose international renown, together with the controversial Ulrich Seidl, have made Austria a leading documentary country in the German language area. Compared to most European countries, Austria has a rich public funding system for film production and promotion. It is possible to produce within your country and without any considerable support from the national tv channel ORF. The Austrian Ministry of Culture (BKA Kunstsektion), the Austrian Film Institute (ÖFI) and the Vienna Film Fund (Filmfonds Wien) are the main supporters.

That could be the reason why most of this year’s films dealt with Austrian themes, contrary to the situation in many other countries where documentarists look to other continents for their stories. Austrian documentaries deal with personal, social and political issues. Many of the films are post-war reflections on the traumatic Nazi era that still seems to haunt the country, even the younger generations. And many films examine the present political situation where years ago Jörg Haider turned the country upside down as the prelude to a more massive turn to the right all over Europe. The films are done with a ‘Gründlichkeit’ (thoroughness) that bears witness to a film community with a strong tradition for proper, solid research into complicated issues. A salute to this ambition. The flipside is of course that to persons from outside Austria, some films are quite loaded with information, with the result that the filmmaker’s unifying principle and/or the point of the documentary are sometimes concealed by the storytelling.

I Am from Nowhere by Georg Misch was shot in neighbouring Slovakia whose small town of Miková has achieved world fame because it is the hometown of Julia Warhola. She left for America in 1921. You guessed it: Julia is Andy’s mother, and many films have already been made about Miková and that ‘kitsch’ factor. “What percentage of Warhol is in your blood,” characters are asked in a film that toys with communism and coca cola and has many fun moments.

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I Am from Nowhere by Georg Misch

This is not true of Vielleicht Habe ich Glück gehabt (=Maybe I had luck) by Käthe Kratz, who chose to shed light on some of today’s refugee stories by mixing them with those of old women who were put on the ‘Kindertransporten’ (children’s transports) to get away from nazism just before WWII. Today’s refugees watch their relatives back home (in Ethiopia, Marocco and Moldavia) on tapes shot by the film team – in a very moving encounter – and the old women watch the stories of today on tape – which is very moving as well. The result is a humanistic view,  a bit structurally complicated, and commentary on a refugee policy that is attributable to many European countries.

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Vielleicht habe ich Glück gehabt by Käthe Kratz,

As could the more smooth Move! about – and for – young people in multicultural Vienna. Engaged in their time, the young women want to make a film and the young men want to make music and rap. Their meetings and their progress, including a tour to New York, are followed as a search for meaning of sorts. It was directed by Niki List.

Much more chaotic and outspoken, some would say impossible to watch, is Klaus Klagenfurth’s Stellvertretend in den Tod (Substitute in Death) that is like one prolonged docu-fictional cry depicting a family whose grandfather was a leading nazi ‘Gauleiter’. Quite different is Reinhard Jud’s very sympathetic and well structured journey to the past and present as he experiences it on a trip from Vienna to Trieste. Weg in den Süden (Road in the South) using archive footage, interviews and commentary to take us through a past of social solidarity and conflict, Nazi suppression and present-day social unemployment and immigrants hoping for brighter futures.

In conclusion, the horror stories of WWII and history in general are also very much the issue of the extraordinarily well-researched and detailed presentation of the Japanese immigrants in Brazil. Nippo Brazil by Helmut Breineder could maybe have been shorter, but what a chapter on the history of the 20th century he offers the viewer.


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