The Truth And Nothing But The Truth – The German Documentary Film Has An Audience, But No Budget
Is this then a golden age for the German documentary film? Not exactly. At the opening of last year’s Dokfest in Leipzig – Germany’s most important documentary film festival – the festival director, Claas Danielsen, took a firm stance, “While artistic documentaries made with the creative trademark of cinema d’auteur are enjoying more and more success in the movie theatres, I have noticed that for years now the genre on television has been completely marginalized. (…) Strict broadcasting practices have forced the medium into a state of limbo.” What Danielsen misses most on the part of the TV companies is the “curiosity that provokes an interest in all things foreign and the urge to break down prejudices”.
It has certainly been quite some time since anybody in a public position has said anything like that and in doing so he has in fact drawn attention to the actual crux of the matter – hardly any films are made in Germany without the TV stations being involved. This is a particularly bitter pill for the artistic documentary film to swallow. It is not just the films’ content that is being prescribed, but also the budget. Not to mention the fact that the programming slots have been banned to times when we are all in slumberland.
A hit at the box-office – no niche on TV
From a statistical point of view the TV company budgets for non-fictional productions have increased, but on closer inspection it becomes clear that the money was spent above all on all those reality shows, docu-soaps and talk shows. The financing of more sophisticated documentary productions on the other hand is becoming more and more difficult.
Simone Baumann, a member of the board at AG Dok, says, “ Many interesting subjects are not developed any further because there is no program slot for them. All the comprehensive research that goes into a documentary film is often not paid and there are hardly any program slots for subjects that go beyond the borders of the particular broadcasting area. Claas Danielsen puts the rather sobering experience many documentary filmmakers go through into a nutshell, “Try to offer an editor film material about Africa that does not deal with wild animals.”
The new generation: courageous choice of subject – international alliances
When it comes to the new, younger generation of documentary filmmakers, there seems to be more leeway on the part of the TV stations. It is often the case that different editorial offices are responsible for the newcomers and there this has led to a regular involvement in artistic documentary film projects. For good reason, too, for over the last few years there has been a constant improvement in the quality. In the section of the Berlinale film festival known as Perspektive Deutsches Kino – a seismograph for Germany’s avant-garde – there has been an increase in the number of documentary films entered over the last five years. This year they constituted over one third.
Even winning prizes however does not always lead to gaining public attention. In 2009, for example, Insa Onken won the national competition at the Dokfest in Leipzig with her film Rich Brother. A few days later the moving film about a young boxer was shown on television – just after midnight, however.
Not only are the subjects of newcomers’ documentary film projects developed more and more in the form of international cooperation, but also their structure. As was the case with the project, The World from Dawn till Dusk, in which young filmmakers all over the world observe the daily routine of their cities. This openness towards international partners has created a global portrait consisting of a series of precise miniatures.
Alexander Kluge has never accepted the fact that there is a dividing line between the documentary film and the feature film. For the last 30 years he has been combining the two genres in his films. It was not until March 1995 however when Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg announced their manifesto, Dogma 95, that the road to a new form of film aesthetics was opened up on an international level. In their quest for a new, authentic cinematographic language the elements of the feature film were merged consistently with those of the documentary.
In the meantime more and more documentary filmmakers are “two-timing”, so to speak, and they are being very successful. Two of Germany’s best known directors – Oscar prize-winner Caroline Link and the much lauded Hans Christian Schmid – started out as documentary filmmakers, before they switched to the feature film. They did away with genre barriers a long time ago and have been masterfully moving between them ever since.
One of the most exciting new developments to take place in the field of documentary filmmaking also came in the form of a genre-mix – the “animadoc”. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman), the first animated documentary film of feature-film length, enabled this new kind of film to make its breakthrough on an international level. At the 2010 Berlinale audiences were thrilled by Howl (Rob Epstein/ Jeffrey Friedman) – a film in which animation and feature film scenes are cleverly interwoven.
A red card for all those who want to keep the documentary film in limbo
The success of the documentary film in German cinemas has also enhanced the influence of the documentary film scene. For example, since 2005 the AG-Dok has been represented on the executive board of German Films and is also partly responsible for German documentary films also meeting with more and more approval abroad – a fact that is clearly underlined by the number of awards they have won.
Last year one of Germany’s most famous documentary filmmakers was elected to the board of the German Film Academy – Thomas Kufus. Maybe he, with the help of the committed lobby for German documentary filmmakers, AG-Dok, will succeed in getting the TV stations to change their mind about financing the artistic documentary film with only a minimal budget and banning it to programming slots way after midnight. It is almost certain that, if documentary films were adequately funded and given more attractive broadcasting slots, a major part of their long-lost, sophisticated audience could be welcomed back to the fold. Maybe by redistributing a tiny part of the money earned from sport licenses, for example, would be a good idea in this case.
is an author and dramatic adviser. She works as a curator and jury member at international film festivals and lectures in dramatic writing at the German Creative Writing Program of the University of Leipzig.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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