December 1, 1990

Mannheim International Film Festival

At the Mannheim International Film Week, non-fiction filmmakers don't have to feel like second-class citizens. Documentaries were well represented among the prize-winners at the 1989 festival, held from Oct. 2-7 in this mid-sized West German city. I was told that a seventeenth century ruler, inspired by the ideal of a rational order, gave central Mannheim its grid plan and a peculiar system of addresses: there are no street names, only ascending numbers and letters of the alphabet, which intersect. (For example, most screenings took place at P4, building 13, a modern multiplex cinema.) It made sense to me that a city which had organized itself so dramatically and so concretely would pay serious attention to documentaries dedicated to improving the present state of affairs.

Not that the films themselves were always serious. One 52-minute prize-winner, Power Lies Elsewhere (Die Macht Liegt Wo Anders) by two students at the Munich film school, Nicholas Remy-Richter and Stefan Tolz, is—believe it or not—a funny documentary on the shipping of toxic material. Specifically, it's about the attempts· of some Lubeck citizens to inform the politicians and the public about the dangerous cargo that is traveling through the city on the way to East Germany and Scandinavia. We watch as ordinary people become protesters, a role which they aren't used to and play with alternating enthusiasm, estrangement and humor. No one knows exactly what they are supposed to do, and that includes the law and the elected officials.

"What does it mean to be politically engaged?" is the theme of another documentary which won a prize at Mannheim, the 90-minute Growing Up in America by Canadian Morley Markson. Using a before-and-after technique, it reviews footage of the 1960s and interviews the protagonists some twenty years later. Timothy Leary is as convinced of himself as ever: You can see as he smiles broadly and vacuously why foreigners often see Americans as fatuous children. The most powerful alternative offered is Abbie Hoffman, plugging away at the grassroots level. His subsequent suicide casts a shadow over the optimistic and determined face on the screen.

Another model of political action is offered by Building Bombs by Americans Mark Mori and Susan Robinson about the Savannah River nuclear plant in South Carolina which produces material for hydrogen bombs. Clearly, a lot of background work went into this film. It's frightening to hear that the cement floor of the plant has become spongy after exposure to radiation and that low-level radioactive waste is buried in cardboard boxes. I'm afraid that these facts may get lost in the density of information provided. Perhaps it would have been more effective to highlight a few arresting visuals and statements. And the filmmakers have some: there's the Atomic Bait and Tackle Shop (how much naivete and irony is captured in that name!), a river with boiling water, and an interviewee who remembers that a couple who didn't want to sell their home to the plant was taken to a mental hospital.

I found similar problems of presentation in the prize-winning Sowing For Need or Sowing for Greed? (Dark sad) by Judith Bourque and Peter Gunnarsson. Again, this was an admirably researched work, full of important content, dealing with the negative effects of the so-called "green revolution" on the third world. The film makes it clear that multinationals are selling genetically-engineered seed­ lings that are resistant to the pesticides only they can produce—pesticides that are often harmful to the people who can't read the instructions for their use. A smaller variety of crops in being produced in many countries as a result of the "green revolution " and huge debts are piling up. But I can recall this complex information only with the aid of my notes which I took because I wanted to remember facts that were going by very fast. It is excellent film journalism, but it could have been more.

With judicious editing it is possible to get beyond journalism into the realm of art. The brilliance of a Mann­ heim prize-winner called The Parade (Desfilada) by Andrzej Fidyk of Poland lies in its concentration on telling details. Fidyk's film team was allowed into North Korea in Sept., 1988 when the country was celebrating its fortieth anniversary. Obsessive ly, the documentary chronicles the colorful ceremonies which look and sound remarkably similar. Because of this use of repetition, the film may seem longer than its sixty minutes, but it is also unforgettable. A guide shows the rock where "the great leader" Kim II Sung played as a boy; an inscription marks the spot. Another guide points out the studio where Kim Il Sun's son, "the dear leader" offered on-the-spot guidance to film workers. We are presented with a society of rituals based on the memorization of not only words but movements. There were so many synchronized marches, with over a million participants, that little else must have gotten done while they practiced. The filmmaker doesn't say this, however ; in fact, according to a written title at the end of the film, the spoken commentary consists entirely of quotations from North Koreans and their newspapers and books. This shows the director's faith in his audience's ability to interpret what they see<: and hear. As Eastern Europe struggles to free itself of the burden of Stalinism, this documentary can function as an eloquent reminder of the path to be avoided. It will probably be read there not only as a satire about a foreign society but as a necessary self­ analysis.

It is not necessary to describe another Mannheim prize-winner, Twilight City by Reece Auguiste of the Black Audio Film Collective in Britain, since that work has been discussed earlier in this journal (Fall, 1989). Its success in Mannheim suggests again that audiences are able to synthesize diverse elements in a film, to make sense of the complexities in what they see and hear. Often viewers raise themselves to the level expected of them by the filmmaker. That seemed to be the case at Mannheim this year.

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