Tuesday, May 07, 2002

Filming What We Know

Submitted by Joseph Gaines

I'll start by saying that I am not a filmmaker. Rather, I am someone who finds himself in the right place at the right time with a story that tells itself. I am lucky enough to have all the resources I need to let this story be retold on film. I don't have to spend a dime on props, the sets are already built and the characters have no need to rehearse their parts. It's just myself, a circle of friends (who know far more about the nuts and bolts of film than I do) and a story that is screaming to be told.

It begins with an accident.

In the fall of 1989, something happens which surprises pretty much everyone in the entire world, especially those who are right in the middle of it. A series of nation-wide demonstrations to change one government's oppressive policies seem certain to provoke a violent response from the military and state police. If this were Tiennamen Square in Beijing, then the story ends here. The government brings the resistance to a bloody and indisputably final end. However, it is not Beijing.

A political and economic system which posited itself as the only viable alternative to fascism disintegrates rather suddenly under the weight of its own dysfunction. The Deutsche Demokratische Republik (German Democratic Republic), the socialist dictatorship which had governed east Germany for the last forty years, collapses seemingly overnight. A "peaceful revolution" takes place, without one shot fired or one drop of blood spilled.

Perhaps "overnight" is an exaggeration. For weeks, protests and prayer vigils have been precipitating just such a collapse. But in one night the Berlin Wall, the ruling Socialist Unity Party's greatest symbol of its real and lasting power, is opened. And blood really is shed; by the time the border opens, three party chiefs have committed suicide. More will do so before the dust settles.

As I said, it begins with an accident. Towards the end of a press conference on November 9, Guenther Schabowski, a DDR Politburo member, lets slip a press briefing which should have been released the next day, announcing a relaxing of the DDR's stringent travel restrictions. Word spreads among DDR citizens even faster than it does to the state police. Hundreds of thousands cram border crossings and the border guards have no choice but to let them through.
And so it goes. More protests, revelations of wide-spread corruption, families and friends reunited - the beginnings of a real public dialog. All of this leads to the eventual reunification of east and west Germany in the following year.

This story is nothing new for Germans. They have talked and written this topic to death.
Why then would anyone want to make a documentary film about it? Who would even watch it?
People will watch this film for the same reason why, when I moved to Leipzig, I thought that the DDR was really just a puppet state of the Soviets and therefore really not very interesting in and of itself - I just didn't know what had really happened here.

I didn't know that many people here had forged a strong sense of independence, of a national identity independent of west German capitalism, of pride in the socialist ideal of equality and support for all citizens, however flawed that reality ultimately proved to be.

I didn't know that there were actually significant ideological differences between the Soviet Union and the DDR, some of which led to blunt political strife in the public arena.

I didn't know that, even though the socialist experiment failed, it wasn't all bad. Many people just lived their lives, left alone by the Stasi (the DDR secret police, often used by the government to terrorize its own citizens), confident that they would always have education, always have a job, and would be cared for from cradle to grave. In the end, everyone knew that the DDR had to clean house, that the ruling party had to go, and that the border had to be opened. Practically nobody expected the whole thing to cave in.

My trade and training is that of a classical musician. I am in Leipzig on a fellowship from the Rotary Foundation to study at the oldest music conservatory in Germany, the Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy College of Music and Drama in Leipzig. I confess that I'm a news junkie and I have a serious love for the study of politics and history, but I have no formal training as a filmmaker. More accurately, I have no formal training to interview and translate for a film, which are my tasks in this project.

I have the good fortune to have already begun interviewing my subjects without even knowing it. All I had to do was ask my speech and vocal diction teacher here about what it was like to work as an artist in the DDR and the stories just came. I cautiously experimented with other local artists of various trades, casually asking what was it like back then? I just had to ask the questions. They did all the talking.

It's said that, as a writer, you should write what you know. I'm hoping the same is true of filmmaking, that you should film what you know. I speak the language of actors, musicians, and artists in general. I know them, so I will retell the stories of the DDR through their eyes. Most Germans have seen some kind of documentary film about the DDR, but they have never seen one told in the words of the artists who lived through it.

Who will watch it?

During my first few weeks in Leipzig last fall, I had the good fortune of being able to attend many screenings and events for the 44th Annual Leipzig International Festival for Documentary and Animated Film. I saw dozens of animated shorts, full-length features, and documentaries of all shapes and sizes. Our film being about the history of the DDR as experienced by Leipzig-area artists, this festival seems a logical first venue and a worthy goal. We hope to have wrapped up post-production by July of 2003, in time for submission to the Leipzig "Dok-Festival" in October.

We will keep the original audio (i.e., the interviewees speaking in German) but add English subtitles. On a practical level, this format will serve both English and German-speaking audiences well. Germans are accustomed to hearing films in their own language (virtually all American films shown here are dubbed), so this will be nothing unusual for them. Americans are used to seeing most foreign films in the original language but with subtitles, so we will be accommodating them as well.

Love, betrayal, innocence, violence, corruption, espionage, you name it, the DDR had it all. All I have to do is ask the questions. I don't even have to worry about a script. As the producer, I have to make sure I get my non-German-speaking crew flown here from across the Atlantic, housed, fed, and kept out of trouble for at least a week. I have to make sure all the interviewees will be in town and available, that we have the right camera and that we stick to a relatively tight production schedule.

In the interviews, people will say what they want to, what they need to, but thankfully I don't need to plan that.

Besides, like I said, it all began with an accident anyway.

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