December 2011        


A film by the West, for the West, about the East

In mid-November the film DDR/DDR was screened three times a day for a full week in Galway. It received financial support from the Goethe Institute in Ireland, a cultural arm of the German government.
     It was with some reluctance that I went to see the American film-maker Amie Siegel’s film, which was screened as part of the Tulca visual arts festival in Galway last week. Would I really see something less predictable than the usual themes of Stasi and dictatorship? Derelict houses? Intrinsically ridiculous people—if they differed from the sophisticated Westerner making the film? Was this film not going to keep beating the Cold War drum that anything is better than life in a socialist society?
     I was not to be “disappointed” in any way. All these aspects are features of Siegel’s film.
     There is, however, a poignant and unrehearsed scene early on in the film when one ex-GDR citizen, a former interpreter of Russian, struggles briefly with her interviewer, Amie Siegel, in an attempt to get hold of the microphone. It is a sudden moment: the woman wants to be in control as she tells her life story, which, after German unification, brought unemployment and “existential fear” to her and her family.
     Of course Siegel keeps control of the microphone, and the film. The interpreter is shown poorly dressed, in front of a run-down house, speaking briefly of her depression following the collapse of her life as it was.
     In contrast, Amie’s sophisticated friend Annette, a psychoanalyst and Stasi victim, gets a prominent place and receives plenty of space to tell her story.
     The Stasi is, of course, the central theme of Amie’s film. The viewer is shown observation cameras and Stasi observation footage, interviews with Stasi officers and indeed its head, Erich Mielke himself, at great length.
     So, Ms Siegel comes with an agenda. This agenda does not include an attempt to find out what life might have been like for the average person in the GDR. When people interviewed mention such things as “existential fear” since unification or describe the takeover of the GDR as “colonialisation,” Siegel never asks for an explanation of what they mean. Would that not make for a new kind of film, one that tries to find out something rather than tell people how deplorable their lives were?
     There are many East Germans who are actively resisting this Cold War version of their history. There are theatres where they go, pubs where they meet, and events they participate in. They are writing their biographies, and they are making films about what has happened in East Germany since unification. They are not that hard to find.
     A particularly pathetic scene in the film was something that Siegel, as an American, should have known more about than what one might expect her to know about the GDR: the GDR film genre of Indian films. Predictably, these are ridiculed. What Siegel ridicules in these films is the portrayal of the Native Americans as victims of slaughtering colonisers. Is Ms Siegel going to rewrite this part of history too?
     This film may well appear at a cultural centre somewhere near you. Beware.

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