Single ticket short film: 5 Euro / reduced 3 Euro
Single ticket full-length: 10 Euro / reduced 8 Euro
Single ticket overlength: 12 Euro / reduced 10 Euro
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Festival center with info counter and exhibition ‘The Fifth Wall’
Tuesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday 12 p.m. to 6 p.m.
frappant gallery in the fux eG
entrance via the cube, Zeiseweg 9, ground floor staircase c
Panels in the morning
Fasiathek of the ARCA e. V. in the fux eG
Entrance via the cube, Zeiseweg 9, 3rd floor, staircase b
SLOT in the fux eG, Wednesday to Sunday from 10 p.m. // entrance via the cube, Zeiseweg 9, basement
Wed: 21 h > Afro-SLOT – todays club sounds from africa
Thu: 20 h > LOTS of… bar & records
Fri: 23 h > Zitterpartie with semi nice, zitroni & tba among others
Sat: 23 h > DJ Argumentepanzer aka Ted Gaier
Sun: 22 h > sega lee, kran, gwen wayne
Introduction to the film program: We are like our films: thoughtful, angry, analytical and appreciative.
Selecting our film program is a multi-step process of watching, talking, arguing and weighing up. And so, like our films, we are thoughtful, angry, analytical and appreciative, moving between different worlds and times, seeking difference and convergence. We have put together a program that invites you to think about the world, to be empathetic with the unknown, and to engage with new perspectives.
We remember Tamara Trampe and have invited long-time companions of her work. The Russian-born daughter of a Ukrainian nurse worked for DEFA, was a special filmmaker and inspiring dramaturge. We also remember the recently deceased Martin Heckmann, who assisted many Hamburg filmmakers with their post-production and will screen his film ‘Ulli’, which premiered with us in 2014. As always, Klaus Wildenhahn has already made the appropriate film: ‘The Hamburg Uprising of 1923’ is celebrating its 100th anniversary.
We are very pleased that Peter Nestler and his cameraman Reiner Komers are guests with new films and take this as an opportunity to broaden the view on the life of Roma and Sinti in Germany with a small focus. Against the backdrop of the current protests in Iran, we have given the collective Woman* Life Freedom Hamburg a carte blanche and are excited to see what they have brought with them. We are revisiting the 2021 discussion on postcolonial perspectives in documentary film with a small series. There will be further reunions with Travis and Erin Wilkerson as well as with Sylvain George, outstanding protagonists of a politically engaged cinema: each with films and expanding workshop discussions.
And now we are looking forward to a whole week of festival with you; to seeing, talking and – maybe – arguing together.
Conversation on the occasion of the 20th anniversary with the founders Rainer Krisp, Rasmus Gerlach and Eva Kirsch: Finding divergent films
The camcorder revolution and the dokumentarfilmwoche hamburg
In early January 2023, Rainer Krisp, Rasmus Gerlach and Eva Kirsch met to talk about the genesis of the festival for the anniversary edition. Rainer, as co-founder of the 3001 Kino and the dokumentarfilmwoche, was active for the festival especially in its first years before moving to Berlin. Rasmus has been there from the beginning, Eva joined the festival collective two years ago. In the following, the two founding members share their personal views on the genesis of the dokumentarfilmwoche. Excerpts from a conversation full of anecdotes that could not all find space here.
Eva: My first big and at the same time very simple question to you is this: When did the idea of organizing a documentary film festival in Hamburg first come up?
Rainer: I don’t remember the date exactly, but I know that at that time, in addition to something like ‘Bowling for Columbine’, documentaries had appeared in the Federal Republic that caused quite a stir in relation to the decades before. We had a relatively difficult time here at 3001 Kino because, as a small single cinema, we depended on finding and using high-revenue films. If that doesn’t work out, you quickly slip into dangerous territory. I remember very clearly when we installed our first Dolby system, I booked ‘Blue Note – A Story of Modern Jazz’ from Salzgeber, a film about the Blue Note jazz label. And not only, but certainly also because of our new Dolby system, the cinema was really cool, and a lot of people came, I think the film was sold out for 14 days. The sales figures really encouraged us and also the conversations that resulted from the film. I always had the idea in the back of my mind to expand the documentary side. Apart from the Metropolis and occasionally the Abaton, there were no cinemas for “adult” documentaries. In principle, we showed a relatively large number of documentaries over the year, everything that we liked and that fulfilled the requirement of not just being a reportage or a more or less uncritical biography. We wanted to show films that explored life. Then I met Rasmus, who had made a very good film with the beautiful title ‘Unity, Putzi und Blondi’, and I could see that a very interesting scene had developed in the immediate vicinity. Rasmus then came up with his idea of the mini-disc revolution …
Rasmus: … the camcorder revolution!
Rainer: That was a time when film production also changed. You didn’t have to rent and buy expensive and heavy cameras anymore, you could make exciting movies with a camcorder. That’s my part, now you tell me!
Rasmus: For me, the situation was that I had been working at the Rote Flora cinema from the very beginning. That’s why, although the Flora cinema always lived in great social isolation, we were actually neighbors of the 3001 cinema. It was mainly documentaries that came to the Flora screen, and that’s how it has remained to this day. Our idea was to go to 3001 because at least it was a real cinema – run as a cooperative – but at least it felt like a real cinema and not like Flora, where you always have to set up the screen and the sound beforehand and every screening is unique. That’s why I was so happy to meet you guys here.
Eva: That means it was just the two of you at the beginning? Or how big was the group to start with?
Rasmus: There was no group at first, we did it as a duo.
Rainer: In the beginning! But we immediately made an effort to include other people – so the camcorder revolution term, that plays a pretty big role here. At that time there was something like a revival of the ideas from the early 70s, when such films as ‘Alone they make you one’ (1971) were made. There was an atmosphere where films were being produced that were movement films without being classic reportage. There, it wasn’t about seeing shooting water cannons and beating cops, but that there was a kind of analysis behind it, that more thoughts were collected behind it, which, for example, made the phenomenon of resistance against nuclear power really recognizable. For me, it was also important on another level, because I thought, we have a small cinema, and there are awards at the federal level for outstanding film programs. We got an extra 10,000 euros a year for our budget just because we showed a few documentaries and made corresponding publications. Basically, that was a kind of subsidy. And that’s how Rasmus, as a producer, director and writer, and me as someone who could provide a screening opportunity, came together – we were natural allies, so to speak. But then others quickly joined in, for example Julia Cöllen and Felix Grimm.
Rasmus: And from about the sixth edition, the group became larger, around twelve people are usually there since then. So the tasks were distributed among more people, also a little bit in the way, everyone does everything: a handmade festival. This then developed into a kind of collective, in the self-image.
Eva: From the beginning, were there also international productions that you invited, apart from films with a regional connection? And how was it with the presence of the filmmakers? For me, that’s one of the core elements of the festival today: that everyone whose films are shown should also be present, if possible, and that it’s about this exchange space film festival. What was that like back then?
Rainer: There were many at that time. We also selected the films in exactly the same way to some extent. We had no budget and certainly no guest budget. We had to make sure that we could somehow raise the minimum guarantees. It was clear from the beginning that this would be a big problem. This meant that guests from abroad, for example, were out of the question. So if they weren’t here anyway and in residence, then we couldn’t bring them here.
Rasmus: Yes, and then we always brought in Klaus Wildenhahn from the beginning.
Rainer: You brought him in!
Rasmus: Klaus Wildenhahn has always played a role here, because Jens Meyer from 3001 Kino was a student of Klaus Wildenhahn. And somehow we managed to lure him here to the cinema many times. He was also present at the first edition of the dokumentarfilmwoche hamburg, because he was interested in that kind of thing and had also been part of the Duisburg Film Week from the beginning and had helped to shape it to some extent. We were always able to show his films for free, and that naturally played a role for us as a festival.
Rainer: Especially since Klaus Wildenhahn is a classic representative of Direct Cinema, i.e. the way of making films in which the author and director hardly try to interfere at all. I always thought that was a great theory. For me, a kind of first experience in the documentary field was ‘Nanook of the North,’ the film by Robert Flaherty from the 1920s. That was already very causative for the rest of documentary history. He portrayed an Inuit family, and of course it’s all posed, but there are incredibly gripping and interesting scenes. Klaus Wildenhahn, on the other hand, has made films here on the Kiez and used this direct cinema principle. Rasmus had close contact with him and brought him into the program for the first three or four issues. So we had a prominent auteur filmmaker who was known far beyond the borders of Hamburg. And then there was also the Klaus Wildenhahn Award.
Rasmus: And above all, 13 years in a row, in addition to the events at the dokumentarfilmwoche, the Klaus Wildenhahn birthday at 3001, where Navina Sundaram was also a frequent guest.
Eva: I find it exciting that two connecting threads just showed up here, from what you are talking about to this anniversary edition: on the one hand the Navina Sundaram exhibition and on the other hand the film you were speaking of: ‘Nanook of the North’. In our opening film, director Jan Peters’ thoughts about ‘Nanook of the North’ introduce his own film ‘Eigentlich eigentlich Januar’. And he also talks about staging and the documentary. But to return to the festival history: The first editions screened exclusively at 3001 Kino. And how did it continue?
Rainer: Maybe it’s interesting to talk about our intention from the beginning again. So there are about 40 film festivals in Germany. But at that time there were only three pure documentary film festivals namely Dokfest Munich, Duisburg and DOK Leipzig. That was the time when this boom came about, which I mentioned earlier, with films like those by Michael Moore. So I thought: We have to support that. For that, a pure documentary film festival was not a bad idea. We also had a certain ambition, we actually wanted to grow. We wanted to gain importance and weight. You can’t do that without an official budget. That’s why we tried to get funding in time. We were lucky that there were elections in Hamburg and a new political force emerged in the form of the Greens. We were able to ask them for a first minimal budget. I think the Filmfest Hamburg got about 15 times what we got. But still, that was a time when I thought, “Let’s grow” – and that’s where the award idea came from: If you ever curate, you find that the first thing distributors ask is, “Is there an award?” That’s what we ended up getting funded.
Rasmus: As far as the addition of the other festival cinemas was concerned: First of all, we were able to win over Martin Aust from the Metropolis Kino. There had long been the idea that Hamburg actually lacked a documentary film archive. So Martin Aust came along and the Kinemathek Hamburg, which runs the Metropolis and the film archive.
Rainer: I remember. Zentral Film Verleih – which I worked for – was shut down because we couldn’t switch to video, and 16mm projections were practically out of fashion. We then handed over the Zentral Film Archive – which was a relatively extensive 16-mm archive – to the Metropolis Archive, and in that context it was natural to ask the Metropolis the question: Don’t you want to get involved? And Martin always had an open ear for any suggestions from outside. That was in 2008 for the fifth edition.
Rasmus: And at the same time, Carsten Knoop, from Lichtmess, had the idea that the documentary film week could also be held there. So that actually came about quite naturally. And three years later, the B-Movie was added as a cinema.
Rainer: And where does the Savoy fit in?
Rasmus: That was only there at the time because the Metropolis was being renovated!
Eva: I find it very remarkable that this festival has always managed over the years to show both bigger positions and names as well as the underground. I know how today in our programming bigger productions find their way into the program. But how was it back then, was it very much related to Rainer’s contacts as a distributor?
Rainer: For example, we also had a Werner Herzog film once, and in the first edition Ulrich Seidl was a guest with ‘Jesus, you know’, which is of course remarkable for the first festival edition. We also had a few other things of that kind. Rasmus, as the original punk from Hafenstraße, was again a local connection. I still think that, in contrast to feature films, documentary films can make a lot out of a little. With documentaries, there are good films where you can see that the budget was more or less pulled out of thin air, at least that’s how it was back then. You know better than me what it‘s like today. To come back to the ‘Jesus, you know’ example: Back then, Seidl had already made his presence felt with extraordinary documentaries. They were also always a bit more expensive. And my idea was to entice the distributors to show their previews. And then there was the idea with the documentary distributors: In the second year, I think, we did a portrait of Real Fiction film distribution, for example. They brought a new film and came to Hamburg as guests. We wanted to honor distributors who had made a special contribution to documentary film. For me, that also meant going reaching for bigger names, even if you can’t present them.
Eva: How did the team evolve? What I’m interested in: How did it become a larger group – a collective – in the first place? What kind of people organized it over the years on a quasi-voluntary basis?
Rainer: I’ll have to think about that … They’re all nerds, of course. The commercial side never came up in our conversation. It was just clear, we do this because we want to and not because it makes our livelihood possible or at least supports it. Many or all people had something to do with film and film making. I, for example, was a distributor or a cinema operator. And from the fifth edition we were in three cinemas, we needed more people, more helping hands. How this group was formed? I had the impression by itself and mainly through personal connections. So very informally. We then started an attempt to make the festival bigger, but also better equipped. Linked to this attempt, to give a little sugar to the distributors, was to offer a prize. It was endowed with 2000 euros, and of course that is not a prize that any normal filmmaker would consider significant. And then it went a bit in the other direction again, because we realized: There are just no generous funders. There are stingy authorities, and the application work behind it is quite exhausting. We thought we could do it better by raiding our coffers. The founding process ended there, when we realized, that such an award is actually much too controversial to help the festival. I think that was a turning point. So the attempt, I guess at issue four or five, to make the festival bigger, didn’t work.
Eva: I understand why there was this award and also the different sections like “Unformatted” or “Horizon”. But I would like to hear more about this moment of turning away from the competition and from the sections, which didn’t exist even in the first edition.
Rasmus: Except for ‘Special’, that already existed then. The section that still exists today, besides the specials, is the Hamburg section, which is now called dokland hamburg.
Rainer: That’s right, it wasn’t subdivided in the first issue. That was one of the measures to bring a little order into things. There are a lot of applications, if you ever put it out there, and in order to put it into some kind of order, we thought about how to subdivide a program that then shows almost 50 films in one week. I thought that was good. But it’s also something that has to do with the scale of the festival. I wouldn’t say that every edition of the dokumentarfilmwoche needed sections. It’s a bit random: which subjects are prominent, who submits? How long are the films? How good are the films and so on … For me, the sections are still part of the idea of expanding the festival. Later they became quite good factors of order. But you don’t have to let a festival proliferate into a thousand sections. For me, this division into sections belongs to an idea which we later left behind: The idea of turning a small festival, held in just one cinema, into a larger documentary film festival for Hamburg. It’s only possible to have a smaller one, which in the meantime, I think is a good thing.
Eva: That means that back then there was an open submission process, alongside the films that you had on your radar elsewhere anyway and then invited. Today there is only an open call for submissions for dokland hamburg. But back then you just watched everything that was submitted?
Rainer: I don’t want to hold forth about all the videos – they were still cassettes back then – but exactly, we watched a lot.
Rasmus: We were really quite open. For example, we once had this film about the homeless on Mönckebergstraße. It was a VHS tape that we watched, and then afterwards, when it came to showing the film here, it turned out that the whole film was just a VHS tape, and we showed it anyway.
Rainer: That was part of it. It wasn’t a matter of showing films that had been prepared with the greatest technical care. We were still attached to the idea of the camcorder revolution. You have to see it dialectically: On the one hand, because there was no other way, and on the other hand, because it was an uncultivated field where something was happening. There were many movement-associated people here in Hamburg. Hafenstraße as the nucleus, Flora as the second focus. As far as I know, Rasmus was already active in Hafenstraße as a punk.
Rasmus: Yes, we also had a Hafenstraße special in the first issue.
Rainer: I liked that a lot, too. I was a bit too young for the original revolt of the 70s, but I was already hanging around at the edges. I was socialized with films like ‘Queimada – Island of Terror’ (1969) by Gillo Pontecorvo. Those were revolutionary feature films at an extremely high level, also artistically. And that, in turn, is part of the part of me that said, we’re not doing 3001 in Mönckebergstraße, but in the neighborhood, and we’re doing our best to fill a gap that the Abaton once upon a time more or less filled when Werner Grassmann was still a younger guy. It was always clear that you couldn’t make money with films that strayed too far from the mainstream. So we were forced to move in a de-commercialized environment. I thought that was important for the dokumentarfilmwoche, too, that we find films that are as radical as possible, which, by the way, if I’m not mistaken, are becoming harder and harder to find.
Rasmus: Yes, that’s why we are now a large group that puts out its feelers in many spheres.
Eva: When it was decided to abolish the competition, you were no longer there, Rainer? Rasmus, could you tell us a little bit about this decision to give up the competition? From my perspective now, it’s also a very political decision.
Rasmus: There was the argument that art is not a competitive sporting event anyway. And of course, we think that such an evaluation principle is wrong, that one film is the greatest at the end and wins everything; Money and attention. We value all our filmmakers and want to distribute the money fairly among all of them, including the attention. In this respect, it was a festival-political decision. We were and are interested in the exchange between the artists, in having a good conversation with each other. And not about who is the greatest or which premieres everyone has. But of course, maybe it’s a bit unworldly, because actually all festivals have these competitions. And the cultural industry is also about tradition: what is passed on? It’s the case that films that are given a certain label or prize are kept differently in society, or are kept in the first place.
Rainer: I have to disagree, strongly. I think it was a mistake to try to pimp the dokumentarfilmwoche with a prize and jury. When I think about it again today, I think that we should have focused more on the underground, which still exists and existed as a rudimentary form. It also has a bit to do with the fact that I actually thought the camcorder revolution would produce more revolutionary things. But I have the impression that even among you students, education since then has become more and more trimmed to success. You only get noticed if you succeed. Which always also means that 80 or even 90 percent of the things that are thought and done go unnoticed. That’s too much non-perception for me, especially since the successful things are by no means the best. So I would, if I were still involved today, definitely go more for the damaged, for the deviant, for the things that are not cast in the classic forms of success – I would make that my clear favorite focus.
Rasmus: That’s a good plea, isn’t it?
Rainer: I didn’t want it to be understood as a plea, but as a remark from my biography.
Eva: And very nice last words. Thank you very much for the interview, Rainer and Rasmus!
Remain forever - an analysis of the documentary hybrid by Birgit Glombitza
Fast-forwarding and rewinding the documentary hybrid: from the archives of the dokumentarfilmwoche hamburg
By Birgit Glombitza
A six-minute view through a half-open, dust-covered side window. A black and white drive through a village, a motorcyclist greets and overtakes, the driver hands liquor to a few workers. Her casting sheet drops. She’s driving director Aleksey Lapin and his cameraman, who want to make a historical film about Yutanovka on the Ukrainian-Russian border. Lapin spent parts of his childhood here. The team and driver talk about the strange days when the machines don’t work and people get weird. And about the film project, “Are we going back, or are you staying forever?” – Lapin’s ‘Krai’ (2021) allows a place to materialise from construction and contingencies, similar to photographic attempts to fix memory. The scripted historical film is a charade to get closer to the place and its people, and finally to rope them into another script that emerges in the process of filming, adding music, editing. The transitions between the controlled, the imagined and are hardly felt. ‘Krai’ is a semi-documentary film, a doc-fable, a hybrid, as this mixed genre is provisionally categorized, and which has appeared so frequently in recent years that it absolutely must be taken seriously as a statement about world and image.
With hybrids such as ‘Krai’ (2021), ‘L’îlot – Like an Island’ (2022) by Tizian Büchi; ‘The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)’ (2020) by C. W. Winter and Anders Edström and countless others, dependent on the extent of the longing for a surreal expression, magical thinking enters the film image, as it also increasingly appears in more experimental feature film productions. It is as if Walter Benjamin’s idea of things (“Angelus Novus”), which imprint their presence and truth quasi of their own accord in language and images, receives a new cinematic equivalent here. At the very least, however, these docu-fictions represent a challenge to the boundaries of genre. In their fluidity, also with regard to political-economic change, a more unstable sense of the world and of the subject seems to find a place. Climate crises, wars, epidemics, worlds of work and life form a pliable ego, itself a collage of fragments that is constantly changing, re-potted and holding itself in readiness.
This is how Richard Sennett thinks of the”flexible man” and his psychological conditions in a short-term and ever-endangered world of work: “The indifference of the old class-based capitalism was grossly material; the indifference that flexible capitalism exudes is more personal because the system itself is less defined, less legible in its form.” Modern firms present themselves as place-less, existing only as nodes in the global web. A factory in China, IT in Bombay, administration in London. They are there and nomadic at the same time, appearing as a simulation with a contact email address. In this phenomenological sense of life and work, too, the hybridization of the images is in a way only consistent. With its claim to reality and socio-political reference, the documentary is increasingly used in installations of contemporary art and in the narratives of feature films. Discourses of post-colonialism, gender, racism, and classism also point to a language that does not yet do justice to these overdue empowerments. That of film included.
What does this mean for documentary truth, however it is presented? What does it mean for dealing with its own myths? For example, the myth of real life, of real time, of the undistorted view, of unencumbered information? Any reflection on the documentary, on cinema and its images of the world, somehow always seems to end up with André Bazin. With the idea that film covers the world rather than making it visible. In his essay “Ontology of the Photographic Image,” he sees mummification as the origin of visual art. In the attempt to symbolically overcome death and to preserve life. For Siegfried Kracauer, too, photography is a ghost that only “allows the real to enter to a certain extent.” Let’s take a look at the basics once more.
What is clear: it’s not the world that we see in the cinema. It is the record of a non-human eye that traces the results of its own movement and in it that of things. Dziga Vertov’s “I See” is the voice of the apparatus that searches for a way of looking that is largely detached from human intentionality and finds itself as a machine via a perception that is impossible for humans. No media deconstructionism in these early years of cinema, but one of the human gaze, which in the optical prosthetics of the recording apparatus first learns to see the world, or so Vertov wished.
The camera is faster, more detailed, can leap from heights, sink into depths, risk its mechanical integrity. In the edit, the otherwise invisible references of the individual parts can then be combined into an order that can only be created by the film. Detached from human vision, the camera, in cooperation with editing and post-production, creates narratives about the world. Narratives in which dramaturgical strategies of the fictional as well as the documentary are at work, the contours and reliability of which we have long been unaware of. And of course the camera lens is subjective. An ideological first-person narrator who structures a complex world in such a way that it can be understood in its sense by being seen. A fabulist who pretends to penetrate deeper through the matrices of the real, to bring the unseen to light, and yet can’t help but pursue her own politics of the authentic.
Alone through the process of recording the world changes, and with it the truth. The former will always bear traces of cinematic production, the latter becomes an image construction. The image only has a chance of autonomy through looking at it. The longer this contemplation is allowed to last, the more the significance of what is photographed grows, the greater its autonomy becomes. And when nothing is happening at all, as in the works of Andy Warhol and Fluxus, there is only dust, light, and material, in all its blurriness, that wants to be seen. While one could long believe that this reduction was the ultimate point of authenticity, this too becomes doubtful when these blurs – now, however, in the digital realm – are in turn fed into the news channels to stage authenticity. Glitching cell phone images as on-the-spot witnesses in war and crisis zones, surface images of drone flights resembling nothing worldy, capturing in cross hairs what is motive for them. “Those who camouflage themselves in these forays do so as blurred images,” Hito Steyerl writes in “The Color of Truth.” Paradoxically, Steyerl argues, the aura of the authentic lies precisely in this unrecognizability. A pixel, an impulse of a recording apparatus that no longer needs a material reference to the world. The documentary as an image of the world has lost its place in this cultural practice. And again, Bazin’s cache spreads like nighttime over genre terms of the fictional and the documentary.
Just as the feature film can be understood as a document of working actors, recording cameras, and final editing, the documentary film is also a document of its being made. “Fabulation” in this sense confesses to its individualised making, to the shaped gaze, to the scripted language that transforms what is explored and looked at “into a radically situated creative experience,” as Julia Bee notes in her essay “Erfahrungsbilder und Fabulationen.” An experience as perception and practice of images, Bee argues, as something that will not happen without a camera. “Film becomes the experiential image of an illusion; not access to one, but also part of a possible world.”
Despite all illusion, the insistence on truthfulness is a concern of institutional communities of faith. Excited debates about films that possibly disguise their scriptedness, their production dis-positives, not infrequently assume a normative “should” and “must” of the documentary, which they see obligated to convey their exclusive visual apprehension and to produce a historical document. There is a belief in a pre-conscious seeing audience that considers the documentary a promise of truth. And not a collection of material.
The possible truth of documentary images, however, does not lie in their visual knowledge of something. If anything, it lies in their formal expression. This documents the uncertainty of the representation as much as its stage of image formation. An image can correspond with reality, with that of the event and with that which also exists ontologically outside of a running camera. Or it may not. Its form will provide information. About the context, the production and its conditions. A mimesis of the dispositive, to give Foucault the pleasure, which is uninterpretable. The documentary image may manipulate without end, but it cannot lie about its being made. Even if some productions only reveal a script or a cast in the credits, because it is precisely with this conundrum that they want to challenge our sense of image and likeness. In this form perhaps lies the hinge at which the discussion about documentary film can fold back to a resilient question of meaning.
Narrative hybrid forms have been part of the cinematic repertoire since the beginning of film history. „La Sortie de l’usine Lumière à Lyon’“(1895) by the Lumière brothers is also, in not insignificant parts, a disguised image film of the manufacturing family. But the amalgams of fiction and document, of the imagined and the invented of recent years – in successful, media-reflective cases anyway, – deliberately irritate narratives of the world and the subject and thus also test the shaking of the genre itself. In the hybrid, the documentary seems to move into a viewing distance from itself. A distance must seemingly be established, perhaps only temporally and only evident in film-historical retrospect. But until then, formal-aesthetic experiments of distancing are tried out through repetitions, disturbances in and on the material, through deliberate simulations of art and the world, through text and staging. Here begins the foray through the repertoire of the dokumentarfilmwoche hamburg.
There are films that start from the beginning. With Robert J. Flaherty, for example, and the ethnographic gesture that Jan Peters’ ‘Eigentlich eigentlich Januar’ (2022) explicitly borrows when he shows himself and his family building an igloo, or when he transfers his own persona, staging various representations, in supposedly finite film reels and comparatively gentle weather at Berlin year-end parties or a vacation in the Swiss mountains. History, including one’s own, is dissected, sorted, and constructed according to all the rules of dramaturgy. Gilles Deleuze’s “fabulation as a becoming in time” becomes an ironic sabotage of any “becoming” in Peter’s chatter, which is repeatedly interrupted by the material itself. Others go back to surveying the world and its colonialist effects that are still effective today. ‘Constant’ (2022) by Sasha Litvintseva and Beny Wagner is (re)enacted narrative of entities appropriating the world and their repositories of domination-science. Or they focus on the vertical like the furious crash study ‘In Free Fall’ (2010) by Hito Steyerl. The film, a hybrid of footage, essay narrative, military and Hollywood myths, also finds correspondences for economic crash curves in the contours of various plane crashes. In the lecture “In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment,” which Steyerl gave on November 6, 2010, as part of the “2nd Former West Congress: On Horizons: Art and Political Imagination” at Istanbul Technical University, she now adds the other coordinate, the horizon. From the central-perspective escape, the world squaring of the Renaissance, the simulated skyline in the pilot’s dashboard, to its disappearance in the crash and drone imagery of the military and entertainment industries, a story of empowerment and dissolution emerges. A dissolution in the military optics of surfaces and grounds, prepared for the perspective of a human being who dies at impact or, optically quasi-empowered, “floats” godlike outside all horizons.
If the staging as well as the documentary image is taken seriously in the same way, the in-between, i.e. the gap in the testimony, so to speak, seems to offer itself for classical elements of alienation. At the beginning of ‘If It Were Love’ (2020) by Patric Chiha, we first see a dance piece that simulates on stage cinematic means such as slow motion, time-lapse or editing only with the rhythm of bodies, music and space. So well that you look at every hair to spot a manipulation in time. In-camera editing becomes in-the-physical-movement editing. Only with the interruption of the rehearsal can this be understood, and we recognize an ensemble rehearsing their roles, legendising the diegetic space of their character, practicing the choreography. Classical elements of alienation provide a lasting interaction from the report of a rehearsal with those of staged affectations. On another level, these methods of distancing are irritated with a – now documentary-like closeness – when we learn backstage about emotions of the participants. Spoken words that join the corresponding stage body like from a belated ‘off’. Instead of identities, multiple experience. In the transit zone between documented stage-, film-, and doc-illusionisms the actual subject takes place.
A stunning example of how a hybrid form also raises ethical questions about visual ethnography and cinematic interventions in existing systems and topographies is provided by ‘The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin)’ (2020) by C. W. Winter and Anders Edström. The 480-minute work was deliberately passed off as a feature film. Set in a small farming village north of Kyoto, it explores the life cycles of people and the nature that surrounds them. Winter and Edström create a complex space of exchange. Between actors and non-actors, locals and visitors, document and fiction, image and non-image. The given and the invented seem to coexist with reality and memory. A film that is un-ethnographic in the most beautiful sense.
Another example of documentary penetration into the partly hermetically sealed foreign, its own emergence and the empowerment of the portrayed as the subject of observation is provided by ‘Ricardo Bär’ (2013) by Nele Wohlatz and Geraldo Naumann. In it, the titular protagonist asks his church congregation if he should star in the film. In order to influence his cooperation favorably, the author duo procures a theological scholarship for Ricardo and offers to replace him in his work on his father’s farm in order to give him (working) time for their own project. The narrative includes the emergence or even the failure of the project. The same is true of the authors’ off-screen memoirs, which reveal their concerns, their projections, and their struggles in an audio-narrative.
With such multiply entangled, dissolving or at least endangered narratives, the documentary enters into a revision in which not only its form, its historicity, but also the subjective nature of its narrative is recognizably put up for disposition. Mediating figures are placed between projection and audience in order to clearly label situated perspectives. The formerly staged become self-empowering protagonists and provide deconstructivist filters through which notions of truth and world at best flash through at the cache edges of the accidental. True is the capital exchange, as true as the simulation of history.
Another technique of alienation lies in the temporality and spatiality of the recording image itself. Isolation, repetition, or even complete idleness, for example, can become strategies for the documentary to look at itself. In his concept of the “dialectical image,” Walter Benjamin emphasizes the abrupt character with which just such an image suddenly immobilizes the tensions of a historical moment and, in the autonomy thus gained (which was already mentioned at the beginning), invites intensive contemplation. It creates a sudden visualization. The blind passage of time is interrupted by another rhythm. Instead of representation, the ‘dialectical image’ conveys the brief illumination of a presence that could be blasted out of any object. In Philip Scheffner’s ‘Havarie’ (2016), the film image proves to be an image that critiques the image. It is thus capable of producing a theoretical effect and thereby critiquing our way of seeing it in the moment of seeing it. The film image looks at us through the time it takes and obliges us to actually see it. In ‘Havarie’ this is done, by stretching a three and a half minute Youtube clip in second-long frames to 90 minutes. The source material comes from an Irish cruise ship tourist who recorded a boat carrying refugees on the Mediterranean. In contrast, the playing time of ‘Havarie’ lasts about as long as the sea rescue of the people. A narrative time outside of the underlying footage, then. While the audio documents, radio transmissions and interviews that cannot necessarily be clearly assigned, and are heard in real-time, are taken seriously as experience and report, the image level contradicts this interpretation on the one hand in the sense that it transfers the source material to the temporal. On the other hand, it is in the durative foil that the individuals first become recognizable and distinguishable from one another, like the audio transcripts of the interviewees. The material disputes and comments on itself. This is also an aspect of a dialectically effective film image.
The documentary film is able to stay in this sense. In the temporality, in the legendised space, in the becoming-self-estranged. Life is not its image center, but its outermost cache. If this boundary is crossed, what remains of the documentary is merely ‘a being similar to’. Then it is no longer art in Benjamin’s eyes. Perhaps the documentary film has to come to terms with this, if being art works out well.
Birgit Glombitza is a freelance film author, dramaturge and lecturer. From 2010 until 2018 she was artistic director of the Kurzfilm Festival Hamburg.