The Leipzig Festival's History: A Fifty-Year Window on the World By Julia Teichmann

in 50th Leipzig International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film

by Julia Teichmann

Pablo Picasso’s peace dove became the symbol of the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film in 1962. It was a commonly used symbol in the GDR; shortly after Picasso created the dove for the poster of the 1949 World Peace Conference in Paris, Bertolt Brecht used it as a sign for his “Berliner Ensemble”, stitched on the curtain of the theatre. For the Leipzig film festival, the dove was in ideological alignment with its 1961 motto: “The World’s Films, for the World’s Peace”.

When the festival was founded in 1955, it was meant to be a bastion of cultural exchange between filmmakers from East and West Germany. As a satellite event to Mannheim’s Film Week for Cultural and Documentary Film, it was also supposed to be an open forum for the DEFA-films. But the vision of a festival uniting East and West soon showed its first cracks: One of the first signs of the political change was the crushing of the Hungarian rebellion of November 1956, during the second Film Week. As a consequence of the ongoing separation of the two German states, the Film Week wasn’t held for the next three years.

But the break in the festival’s history was not only due to political change. The 1956 competition was harshly criticized by the official jury, who claimed the exclusively German competition was lacking, “with only a few exceptions”, high artistic standards. The jury also recommended “to give up the separation between German films in competition and foreign films out of competition”, since the foreign films had turned out to be the better works. One of the two main awards ultimately went to Martin’s Diary (Martins Tagebuch), by the young director Heiner Carow, who years later would direct the international DEFA-success The Legend of Paul and Paula (Die Legende von Paul und Paula). Heiner Carow’s short film about the meaning of paternal education for a young boy had already run through different phases of censorship before being screened in Leipzig. The last request of the state commission was to eliminate “the Pioneer Leader Rohbeck, who is seen three times in the picture, because R. fled the republic” from the film.

In 1960, the festival celebrated its new beginning with its first retrospective — consisting of four films by the Russian avant-garde and documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov — and, as the jury in 1956 had demanded, with a new international mandate. The new beginning also signified an ideological change: One year before the Berlin Wall was built, the festival became a politically sanctioned “window to the world”, with East Germany striving for acceptance as an independent state through cultural efforts. From this point on, the GDR’s A-list festival would assemble the international masters of documentary film — from direct cinema and cinema verité to new and unique voices in documentary filmmaking, from Richard Leacock and Chris Marker to Michael Moore.

And we mustn’t forget the animated films, which received a retrospective of their own in 1978. “Anima 78: Animated Film from Socialist Countries” was intended to set a spotlight on animated films, which had thus far lurked among the live-action programming in the competition and other sections.

After Germany’s reunification in the early 1990s, the festival almost collapsed due to funding concerns. Given that fact, it is not surprising that festival director Claas Danielsen asked the city in a speech marking the festival’s 50th anniversary to give more money; it’s a clever move to do that in advance, especially when there are ambitious visions for the future, like the development of market services. In its anniversary year, the festival sometimes even seemed a little overly ambitious; its focus on German premieres meant the quality of some films shown in the International competition for documentary films was lacking in comparison with other titles being screened in side sections or other competitions, because they were probably too highly awarded previously, or had played at other German festivals. Fewer than 22 films in the competition would have fared as well.

In a retrospective with the evocative title “Tracing the Past — Film Perspectives from Five Decades”, the festival tried to reflect upon its eventful history, screening films which been barred from previous editions of the festival, like Jürgen Böttcher’s 1967 The Secretary (Der Sekretär), but at the same time showing acclaimed films like the aforementioned Martin’s Diary or After Winter Comes Spring (Winter Adé), Helke Misselwitz’s portraits of women and girls from different social environments in the GDR. (After Winter Comes Spring is included in a special anniversary DVD collection being released by the festival.) Other sections of the large retrospective are titled “Blood for Vietnam”, reflecting on the engagement of the festival against the Vietnam War — guests in 1966 were encouraged to donate blood during the Film Week, and Vietnamese reports from the front were screened — or “Liberation Attempts: Africa”, including José Massip’s Madina-Boe, which was awarded a Special Mention in 1968 by the festival’s first FIPRESCI jury.

The reflections on the festival’s history isn’t confined to the retrospective: The festival also published the commemorative book “Images Of A Divided World” — which supplies the quotations in this article — offering an interesting trip through the festival’s history as different authors take different points of views, alternating between very personal stories, objective facts and critical reflection.

Every detail in the festival’s anniversary year seems to be viewed from an historical perspective: From the composition of the International jury through the master classes to the symposium. Amongst the members of the International jury was the Cuban director Octavio Cortázar, a veteran of that panel (having sat on the Leipzig jury in 1961 and 1962) who had also shown his own work at Leipzig; his 1967 film For the First Time (Por Primera Vez) was included in the festival’s retrospective. Another film shown in the retrospective was Viktor Kosakovsky’s 1993 The Belovs (Belovy),abouta sister and a brother living together in a village close to Saint Petersburg — a paradigmatic film for the festival’s change in direction. Kosakovsky, who wasn’t as well-known then as he is today, was also member of the jury. The master classes were led by Kazimierz Karabasz and Patricio Guzmán; at the symposium “Identities of a Festival: 50 Years of the Leipzig Festival”, Richard Leacock — whose 1963 film A Happy Mother’s Day was screened in the retrospective — was welcomed as a guest.

Picasso’s peace dove is no longer part of the festival’s logo. In 2005, an advertising agency charged with rethinking the festival’s public appearance decided the dove represented an “overly intellectual, political image”; it was brought “down to street level”. As Claas Danielsen also remarked in his opening speech: “It is a pigeon now”. The festival’s future will show us what future images the pigeon will deliver.