More for Peace than Prize

in 47th International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Lisa Kristin Strindberg

The Leipzig festival has a strong tradition, from the early days of the Iron Curtain. Located between Berlin and Dresden, this festival of documentary and animation films, which originated in the old East Germany, has always focused on peace-making.

That was the case this year as well. The festival’s documentary programme concentrated on the suffering of people when war changes borders or chases entire ethnic groups from their homeland.

The FIPRESCI jury, however, chose its winner among the personal stories. Stroke (Am seidenen Faden) by Katarina Peters was a well-told story of hope. When visiting New York as newly-weds, the director’s husband suffers a brain stroke that puts him in hospital care for months. The film shows how music and love bring her husband back to life again over a period of five years. It does not hide Peters’ own pain, problems and doubts about their marriage along the way.

The Italian Good Times (Bei Tempi) was one of several ”war victim” films in competition. It is an eyewitness account of the situation for the people of a small Palestinian village when the Israelis build a two-meter-high wall along the main street, and then just let the Palestinians climb over and back again whenever they have to – until the lorries arrive with a new wall, this time 8 meters high.

Across the Border – Five Views from Neighbours (Über die Grenze – Fünf Ansichten von Nachbarn) relates directly to the latest expansion of the EU. It is an interesting story, although a bit long, about five new member states, made by five Eastern European filmmakers in an Austrian production.

However, a comparison of the competition programme (18 films) with the documentaries outside the competition (45 films) raises some questions about the goals of the selection committee.

The Spanish-made Aadat, about the Sahauri people, is a stunning story of survival. But this film is rather more like a sad report than really qualified for a competitive entry. It is an unfinished story of a tribe in Sahara living as fugitives, waiting for the Moroccan occupants to return their country to them. The same goes for Runaways, an unusual story, but a more or less short ”reportage” about Afghan fugitives living on the border of Tajikistan).

Quite a few of the competition films should have switched places with some of the films out of competition in the International Documentary Programme. For example, the Danish documentary Jerusalem my love (Jerusalem min elskede), a strong story of a young man in search for faith in his life, was a far better film than the Danish Blue Collar White Christmas (Nede på Jorden), which was about unemployment.

Additionally, the Russian film Suburban Train (Elektricka), made by Majram Jusupova, would far better defend a female-director-place in competition (if that was the aim) than the Belgian stripper story Don’t Tell My Mother (Ne dites pas a ma mer), made by the stripper herself. This was merely a weak, peeping-tom look at nude bodies, without any depth whatsoever.

The retrospectives this year brought us interesting stories of East Germany through the documentaries of Volker Koepp (born 1944), made during the last 30 years. It was called ”People and Landscapes – films from Wittstock to Czernowitz”. He started his film career with experimental films with sociological descriptions of economic-social processes. His films are characterised by an analytical approach.

The International Leipzig Festival was well run, with films and guest in the good care of a small, but hard-working staff with a strong feeling of responsibility (there were only a few problems with the English translation, but the staff worked hard to make up for it.)

Located in the charming centre of this historic, cultural city, no screen was further away than a walk of ten to fifteen minutes. The festival concentrates on the films, rather than partying – a good decision. However, the working conditions for the press were limited, because only one computer was to our disposal. If the festival wants to reach out internationally, there is definitely an improvement potential here.

Lisa Kristin Strindberg