German documentary films
Duisburg Film Festival and DOK Leipzig

The International Festival for Documentary and Animated Films in Leipzig
The International Festival for Documentary and Animated Films in Leipzig | Photo (detail): Bertram Bölkow © DOK Leipzig

The numerous annual festivals dedicated to documentary films in Germany are proof that the genre explores topics in our society that people feel are relevant – and viewers come in droves to enjoy the premieres.

If you want to see how German documentary films are doing these days, head to the Duisburg Film Festival or to DOK Leipzig, the International Festival for Documentary and Animated Films.

Award-winning projects

Every autumn since 1977, the Duisburg Film Festival has been a cultural highlight in the Ruhr Region, presenting works from Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In 2011, the jury awarded Carte Blanche, by Swiss director Heidi Specogna, with first prize for its portrayal of a trial in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Next came a film from Bernd Schoch, Aber das Wort Hund bellt ja nicht (But the Word Dog doesn’t Bark), which explored a completely different subject, namely, the Berlin free-jazz band “Schlippenbach Trio”. Another prize went to Theo Solnik for Anna Pavlova lebt in Berlin (Anna Pavlova lives in Berlin), a portrait of a young woman making her way in the big capital city, while the unique, two-and-a-half hour Die große Passion(The Big Passion) by Jörg Adolphs, which showed preparations for the Passion Play in Oberammergau, won the People’s Choice award.

The Duisburg event also offers a unique category among German festivals: Doxs, a series of documentaries focused on young people. The prizes in Duisburg are presented by TV stations ARTE and 3sat as well as the City of Duisburg itself. The Goethe-Institut also awards its own documentary film prize, which in 2011 went to a film from the Leipzig event. In previous years, the Prize was presented during the Duisburg Film Festival.

Documentary films are booking record viewing numbers

The DOK Leipzig international festival is run by Claas Danielson and is the oldest of its kind in the world. After Amsterdam it is also the second largest in Europe. 300 documentary and animated films from 47 countries were on show in 2011, from over 3,000 submissions. Public interest is apparently massive, because the festival is posting continuously increasing viewer numbers: in 2011, roughly 38,000 people came to the 54th annual DOK Leipzig – another new record.

The winning films in Leipzig included Work hard, play hard by Carmen Losmann, a look at the mechanisms of the modern working world. The best German film went to Louisa by Katharina Pethke. Mexican director Tatiana Huezo took first prize at the show for her El lugar más pequeno (The Tiniest Place).

The Arab Spring category at the festival was proof that documentary filmmakers react extremely swiftly to political and social change. There were an astonishing six films just about the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, but the award went to Fragments of a Revolution, about the failed uprising in Iran. The director remained anonymous for reasons of personal safety – a French production company submitted the film.

New challenges

Despite the popularity of the genre, festival director Claas Danielsen also mentioned some of the problems in the industry. “We are watching with concern as independent production companies go out of business or just give up because they can no longer live from their work, while broadcasting company subsidiaries fortify their market positions,” he said. Talented people are not given enough support and editorial departments often give producers insufficient funding. As a result, Danielsen announced the establishment of the DOK Fund to support “artistic, innovative, cutting-edge, courageous and visionary documentaries and animated film projects” in the future.

As part of the festival, and as a reaction to the increasingly difficult conditions in the sector, a new trade association was established for the German animated film industry: the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Animationsfilm, which aims to garner tangible support among government organizations and broadcasters. “The German TV broadcasting companies have withdrawn from funding and co-production in this genre, despite its popularity among German viewers, and are now increasingly purchasing foreign series,” says a press release from the special interest group. Given these concerns in the documentary film industry, it is no surprise that filmmakers have for years been experimenting with new funding models. The so-called “crowdfunding” concept collects donations from the Internet. Based on the US-based Kickstarter site, artists in Germany can now shop their projects around on numerous web sites in an effort to attract help from interested parties. Carl Fechner, for example, was able to raise over EUR 1 million for his critical environmental documentary Die 4. Revolution, yet another indication of the astonishing popularity of the documentary film.