Marco Wilms

Rory MacLean meets Marco Wilms

© Marco Wilms
© Marco Wilms
'If you are a documentary filmmaker, you have to do everything yourself,’ said Marco Wilms, reaching for a file, burning another DVD, preparing for the premiere of his latest film. Around him in the former Alte Schönhauser Strasse squat where he has lived since the fall of the Wall were banks of Macintosh computers, mountains of editing notes and translation typescripts. ‘It’s hard to believe that when I started Art War I had no budget, nothing.’

Art is a weapon. It’s a motto which helped to shape Wilms’ life. He was born in the heart of East Berlin, in its Charité hospital. As a child he spoke his mind, and was criticised for it. As a teenager he wore long hair and listened to Western music, so was branded a ‘negativ-dekadenter Jugendlicher’.

‘I rebelled against East Germany’s oppressive structure. I was made to feel like the black sheep of the family. Only later did I realise that there was nothing wrong with me. I simply wanted to express myself, to be an individual.’

Wilms’ artistic career blossomed as the Communist state withered. Over two chaotic, euphoric years he went from being a painter and a graphic designer to studying stage and then film production design. At Babelsberg Studio he realised that he wanted to create his own worlds, and so switched to directing.

‘1990 was the Year of Utopias,’ he recalled with a laugh. On his black t-shirt was the 'Held der Arbeit' — Hero Worker — crest. ‘You can’t imagine how beautiful this city was then, with its old signs, cobbled streets and crumbling buildings.’ Wilms made his first documentaries in those streets, turned the Alte Schönhauser Strasse house into a stage and prop store. His feature-length documentary told the story of his days as a ‘state-certified Communist fashion model’. Comrade Couture — subtitled a proletariat Ein Traum in Erdbeerfolie rather than silken Ein Traum in Seide — played at the Berlinale, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and at 66 other film festivals.

‘I’m not your classical documentary filmmaker,’ he joked. ‘Most of my films are about artists, entertainers or outlaws. In a way I’m still part of the East German resistance.’

Photo from ART WAR © Marco Wilms

In 2011 while developing a project on Egyptian author Hamed Abdel-Samad, a revolutionary wave of demonstrations and protests swept across much of the Arab world. Within a week Wilms was in Cairo filming in Tahrir Square. He had neither funding nor story but he identified with the protesters.

‘I was reminded of the fall the of Wall. I wanted to document an actual revolution, to film people who were the age I’d been in 1989.’

He was drawn to the young artists who were themselves documenting the revolution as no new story could do, through the senses and in metaphors. In wild graffiti, blood-smeared portraits and rebellious rap music, the painters, musicians, writers and graphic artists both chronicled and shaped the days of fighting and anarchy. Wilms followed their guerrilla tagging sessions, their midnight recordings, from the early euphoria days after Mubarak’s resignation to the fall of Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood. No one knew how events would unfold, what would happen next, or where the story would lead. But on the street, art was being developed as a weapon in the struggle for the unfinished revolution. As Wilms admitted, ’The work of these artists was incredible. This was the picture of the revolution, the memory of the revolution. The people were fighting to find themselves. I wanted to honour them.’

No Walls - from the ART WAR film © Marco Wilms

After 18 months’ shooting, the Franco-German broadcaster ARTE backed the film. When we met, Wilms was preparing for its premiere and theatrical release across Germany. Already his remarkable movie had been lauded with rave reviews and festival invitations. In his office-home were stacks of press cuttings, posters and even a homemade Art War graffiti stencil, as useful on Berlin’s streets as on Cairo’s.

© Marco Wilms‘All my films focus on one universal concern,’ said Wilms. ‘For me what’s important is self-determination and individual freedom. Of course that concern comes from my having grown up in East Germany. It also explains why I am against the Islamists. Their moral intolerance reminds me of the old Communists.’

DOK Leipzig, the international festival for documentaries, awarded the film an honorary mention with the words, ‘Art War is a breathtaking, sensual story about the connection between ancient art from the age of the Pharaohs and modern Egyptian graffiti art and how it can still be used as a weapon with explosive political force today. Marco Wilms boldly follows his protagonists to chaotic scenes in the streets of Cairo and thus becomes part of this art with his camera. The film is an unmistakeable call for resistance to extremism.’

It’s no surprise that Wilms named his production company HELDEN — or Hero — FILM. ‘My films are about heroes, or the hero’s journey,’ he said. ‘In Art War the writer Hamed told me, “Changes are never produced by the majority of the population. It’s always been minorities who have fundamentally changed societies because they are the most active”.’

Art War film poster © Marco WilmsWilms went on, ‘After 1989 the parallel world of East Germany disappeared in a way, and we came to live a better, freer life. But in Egypt after two-and-a-half years it’s back to square one. There was an attempt at Islamic dictatorship, now the army is in charge again, arresting people, wanting to limit the right to demonstrate, and too make graffiti a punishable offence. Despite that the artists aren’t giving up. They hope to win in the end, that their dream of revolution will become a reality.’

Rory MacLean
February 2014
Related links

Dossier: Media Art in Germany

History, tendencies, names and institutions