Freedom is an Elementary Theme

in 57th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Madelyn Most

The 57th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film (known as Dok Leipzig) took place from 27 October – 2 November 2014. It is one of the oldest documentary festivals in the world. Originally founded in 1955, it was the only independent film festival in the German Democratic Republic; the festival has traditionally attracted controversy by allowing the exchange of ideas between East and West, while promoting films that advocate peace and human dignity, freedom of mind and spirit, and freedom of speech. In the past, rebellion against oppression and abuse of power have been key festival themes.

Of the 368 films screened this year, for me there is only one that truly stands out as a landmark documentary in Leipzig: it defines one of the most important historical moments today in the fight for free speech, freedom of the press, and the rights of investigative journalists while coinciding with Germany’s 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November  1989 and the crucial role Leipzig played in the events leading to the collapse of communism.

The formerly East German population is still haunted by dark memories of living in constant fear under Stasi surveillance and wire taping which made the selection of  Citizenfour as the film for the Opening Night of Dok Leipzig 2014 an extremely important declaration, reminding citizens of the liberties they fought so hard to win: to know what their government is doing, and to prevent such tyranny from ever returning. They repeated their determination to never allow such a system to corrode German society again, some citing their parents’ generation living under Nazi surveillance and the eventual rounding-up of ordinary citizens classed as “traitors” and sent to concentration camps.
Laura Poitras’ film Citizenfour records eight days inside a Hong Kong hotel room where former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden met with Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill of London’s The Guardian newspaper to reveal what he knew about the National Security Agency’s worldwide surveillance network. Snowden explains his motivations for going public and suddenly becomes aware of the dramatic impact on his life once the media circus stakes him out.

On Monday 27 October 2014 the German premiere of Citizenfour took place and Edward Snowden addressed the Dok Leipzig audience with a video link message:
“I’ve never agreed to do an introduction to this film. Not in the UK, not in the US –  But when somebody asked me if I would do it for Leipzig, I said yes and that’s because your history is an inspiration to me. It’s critical that we remember the lessons from history. And Leipzig reminded us that the wall and the GDR didn’t go down because of bombs or guns or violent resistance. It was brought down by ordinary people on the streets in the square on Mondays. Ordinary people against extraordinary powers reminded us that the legitimacy of governments is derived from this consent of the people that they are governing. And today when that principle is so often forgotten, we have so many governments, even in liberal democracies, western democracies, not just authoritarian regimes, that so frequently favor tactics of deception and secrecy we do remember that the consent of the government is only meaningful if it’s informed” said the soft spoken Snowden.  

Festival director Claas Danielson added that “Freedom is an elementary theme that accompanies us in life and will follow us through this festival” and declared his support for the online campaign petition demanding protection, safety, and asylum for Edward Snowden.

On Wednesday 29 October  the Peaceful Revolution Foundation held a special ceremony at Leipzig’s St. Nicolas Church, (the location where demonstrations sparked events in 1989) and presented the Leipziger Ring Award to Laura Poitras for Citizenfour “to honor an artistic documentary film that shows exemplary civic engagement for democracy and human rights, made with great personal commitment and courage in the face of resistance and restrictions on freedom of opinion and freedom of the press”. In addition to the prize money, the winner received the “Leipziger Ring” statuette, which commemorates the major demonstrations in Leipzig’s Old Town Square in the autumn of 1989, and the burning candles that protesters held in their hands as a sign of non-violent protest.

The Foundation’s Jury stated that “Snowden had risked his life and freedom to make the world aware of intelligence service practices that hardly anyone would have believed possible. With her film, Laura Poitras had rendered a great service to the freedom of all people”. In his opening speech, Foundation’s president, Professor Dr.Rainer Vor, recalled the still rampant xenophobia in this country, but also added “intelligence services had lost every restraint in their mania for surveillance”.

At Thursday morning’s press conference at the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig, Poitras, who now lives in Berlin, answered questions about Citizenfour which, she explained, evolved while making the third film in her trilogy about America after 9/11, following My Country, My Country (2006) and The Oath (2010) and was mysteriously contacted over the internet by Edward Snowden.

Poitras added: “There was a sense of urgency to get this film out as soon as possible while staying below the radar. People involved in the film had to be prepared that they would be under surveillance, but no one backed off; rather, people have come forward to support it.  This is really an important award and I am very moved to receive this award here, from people who took down the Berlin Wall”.

“It’s interesting that I now live in the former East Germany with its long history of surveillance and repression, where the government, with the Stasi and during the Nazi era, collected information on its citizens and employed informants, but today there are laws enshrined in the constitution to protect people from this. I came here because it is a place that would provide protection for the work that I do, and there is a community of people interested in the work”.

“As a visual journalist and a US citizen, I am trying to document, with images and a camera, something about the world that I see. I think as Americans we have drifted away morally from our basic core principles and that is what I am communicating,”  Laura Poitras concluded.

Edited by Birgit Beumers