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Dokumentarfilmwoche Hamburg 2023 - Hamburg Documentary Film Festival
by Becky Tan

The dokumentarfilmwoche Hamburg (Hamburg Documentary Film Festival) celebrated its 20th anniversary this year from April 24-30, featuring over 40 films in four cinemas. Tickets could be purchased last minute. There was no need to book a registered seat; we had free choice upon entering the movie hall. Strangely, no one ever checked my ticket.

What is a documentary film? A nonfiction movie “made in order to maintain a historical record” according to Wikipedia. This festival introduced the idea of hybrid documentaries, i.e., facts which are interspersed with fiction.

The dokumentarfilmwoche hamburg featured an exhibit “Die fünfte Wand” (The Fifth Wall) in the FUX EG festival center, Hamburg Altona. This had access to an archive of the works of Navina Sunderam, who was born 1945 in India. She studied in Hamburg, where she got her master’s degree; Hamburg became her new home. Here she made films and also worked almost 40 years for the Norddeutsche Rundfunk, which presents television and radio in northern Germany. She died April 24, 2022, in Hamburg.

We were introduced to the idea of interior views of an outsider (Innenansichten einer Aussenseiterin), versus outlooks of an inside (Aussenansichten einer Innenseiterin). These ideas come from immigrants who left their home countries for a new world. In DARSHAN SINGH WILL IN LEVERKUSEN BLEIBEN, directed by Sunderam, we learn that families living in Uganda with Asian passports were forced to leave. Thirty families came to Germany. Darshan Singh, age 44, set up residency with his five children in Leverkusen.

In NUIT OBSCURE – FEUILLETS SAUVAGES (OBSCURE NIGHT – WILD LEAVES), we see young African boys who have landed in the Spanish town of Melilla, on the border of Morocco, while trying to get to Europe. Director Sylvain George made four hours of wonderful black and white shots of them, almost always at night, with the beach in front and Morocco behind. They climb fences, sleep on the street and the beach, wash in a fountain, and cook over a fire. There seem to be no other people around at these times. They have mobile phones, talk about marriage in the future country of their choice, and hope to escape on a cruise ship. We learn that some of these refugees have been stranded here for 14 years.

From here I went to Iran, where women were trying to solve their problems in different ways, including immigration, but also demonstration. For the last six months they have been demonstrating against repression. Over 90,000 women have been arrested and 800 executed. In MOUVEMENT DE LIBERATION DES FEMMES IRANIENNES (IRANIAN WOMEN’S LIBERATION MOVEMENT), we go back to 1970 to watch 15,000 women on the streets, demonstrating against requirements to wear hijabs or chadors. Four women appear on screen to discuss this impossible situation.

In DANCING FOR CHANGE, director Sahrzad Arshadi communicates with six women about this historical moment. In the 1970s, people suffered from poverty and hunger. In 1979, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlovi was deposed. With the arrival of new leader, Ayatolla Khomeini, hopes were for the better. No way. Iran and Kurdistan in Iraq are attacked, and the Freedom Fighters’ group called Peschmerga formed for defense. Women become armed soldiers; there is the Women’s Council. “Family solves problems – not society.” In the end, several people actually dance.

These films were supported by Women* Life Freedom Collective Hamburg. In LETTER TO MY MOTHER, we meet an Iranian man who is shaving all the hair off his body: chest, stomach, legs, arms, face, even—with help—his back. Then he adds lipstick and women’s clothing and talks about doubting one’s own sexuality. He is now female. There is reference to the movie TEN, in which he and his mother play the main roles, driving together in a car. This referred to his own experiences, a true story having been raped at, yes, age 10.

And then it’s time for questions and answers and director Armina Maher appears on stage. She is dressed in black stockings, a short skirt, a cropped top, a yellow sweater, earrings, a necklace, and yellow glasses. She talks about leaving Iran, experiencing exile every day and eventually arriving in Berlin in 2019. She said, she needed to go back to her own childhood to overcome a “shame” culture. Making feature films is easier and “cinema is a very manipulated medium.” Her own mother made films and “children of artists have a hard time.”

Outside of the cinema I could talk to Armina Maher, while standing with a group. She said that she has been refused entry to Iran and she has no contact to her family. She is truly an exile, setting up a new life in Germany.

Immigration is definitely a topic for documentary films, but there are also other possibilities. In THE PLAINS, I sat in the back seat of a car in Australia, where the driver’s seat is on the right side. Andrew Rakuwski drives down the highway of Melbourne, always shortly after 5 p.m. as he goes home from work. He sometimes picks up his friend, David, who lives in the same neighborhood. While driving he phones his “Mutti,” as well as others, including his wife, Cheri. He talks to David about the weather (rain), not having kids, living in the USA, his house, his mother’s accident and refusal to eat, Cheri’s sister Monique, his own sister Jacqueline, who has died, women in general, his German grandparents, his sunglasses, a veterinarian, experiences in Berlin, and much more. Occasionally the radio is on. David seldom gets a word in. After I “sat” in the car for four hours, the film ended, and there was online Q & A with director David Easteal. He said he filmed twice a month for one year. He “is interested in repetition and trust is necessary” for this close experience of one’s private life.

A bit similar is the festival’s opening film: EIGENTLICH EIGENTLICH JANUAR. Here director Jan Peters also shares his private life in three-minute films, once a day for one month. Look forward to Hamburg’s 2024 festival, date to be announced.