Hide and Seek: Black German Perspectives at the 2019 Berlinale

Article by Karina Griffith // Feb. 23, 2019

This year’s Berlinale featured two Black-authored films made in Germany or with Black German perspectives. These Black perspectives from Germany are disparate in form and focus, although they share the aesthetic of black-and-white.

The first, Jagdpartie (Hunting Party, 1964), was directed by Ibrahim Shaddad at the Babelsberg Konrad Wolf University of Film in Potsdam for his graduation project. Together with Suliman Elnour and Eltayeb Mahdi, Shaddad founded the grassroots distribution and production cooperative, The Sudanese Film Group, in 1989. The group started in the wake of a coup d’état that drastically curtailed cultural production in Sudan and was only able, in 2005, to re-register and continue its practice of not only making films together, but fostering discussion about film through mobile cinemas of social change. Arsenal has a longtime cooperation with the filmmakers to source negatives and carefully restore the films. Thinking the present with the past, Shaddad’s film about a Black man who is hunted like an animal in the German forest is a poignant allegory for the current topic of fishing and surveilling refugee claimants, who are watched but not welcomed ashore the Mediterranean.

“It is a German film,” said Shaddad on stage after the screening at Silent Green. The pacing and aesthetic of his patient short is a mix of 1950s black-and-white American Westerns and Heimatsfilm.

The second, Mother I am Suffocating. This is the Last Film I will Make About You, was directed by Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese, and (spoiler, if such a thing can exist in essay films) we learn in the end that the perspective is German, Berlinerisch even. A Beuysian attention to wool and sheep adds texture to the slow motion, black and white images; the cross-bearing protagonist scans piles of shoes and debris in the market like an African flaneur. The narrator describes her mother waving a napkin “like in the European cinema” – a hint that the perspective extends further than the dusty village market. In one intimate scene, the narrator of the film shares her address in Kreuzberg. The flip in perspective from South African to Black in Germany is foreshadowed but still an interesting twist. The at times kaleidoscopic camera shows a woman bearing a cross through the streets of Lesotho. The voice, whose repetitive text is sometimes a prayer or a meditation, is never shown diegetically. This intimate narrator, recorded with an affective nostalgic crackle that reminds one of analogue processes, speaks to us about colonialism, shame, whiteness, integration and alienation. The soft essay film takes the form of an extended, poetic letter to the protagonist’s mother/motherland. In one way, Mother I am Suffocating answers the call of Safi Faye’s Black Berlin film, Ich Deine Mutter (Me, your Mother, 1980), wherein a Senegalese engineering student receives regular letters from family, including his mother. Both films speak to the diasporic experience of time and space and the labour of belonging through practices in letter-writing.

Defining Black German broadly and diversely takes wholesale that an immigrant to Germany can contribute to the culture of the place and space while they are here. According to the German UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, civil society estimates that the number of people of African descent in Germany is around 1 million. Beyond the second generation, people of African descent are rendered invisible by official statistics about people with “migrant backgrounds.” Germany’s policy of not keeping demographic statistics on “race” hinders the formation of other policies that could address historical injustices against Black people.

The Black Filmmakers in Germany Community (Schwarze Filmschaffende Community) defines their membership of approximately 400 people, as anyone who identifies as Black and who works in moving image production in German-speaking countries. The collective accepted an invitation from this year’s Berlinale Africa Hub and the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung to host the panel discussion ‘A Fresh Perspective: Women, Diversity and the Obvious Relationship to the New Position of Streaming Platforms and TV Networks on women in the industry’ at the European Film Market. The panel included actress Jane Chirwa, director Pola Beck, producer Nataly Kudiabor, scriptwriter Anna Winger and director Lemohang Jeremiah Mosese.

Chirwa, who plays one of two Black doctors—a brother and sister duo—on the series Die Jungen Ärzte, says that although she is seeing diversity written into the scripts more often than before, she still needs to challenge general references to “Africa” when her character is going to Uganda. “We don’t want to be bored,” said Chirwa, about why diversity is imperative.

While the Black German community has more presence on the small screen, our joy at seeing milestones such as the first Black commissar on Germany’s longest-running crime show, Tatort, is dashed by the lazy content: the portrait of another angry Black woman cliché. We are tired.

“The structures for us to succeed are not yet in place,” remarked moderator and actress Benita Bailey, noting that renowned acting schools, such as Ernst Busch, remain mostly white.

Real change will take place when diversity exists on and off screen. “We still have to talk about and fight for diversity, where other countries are talking about inclusion,” said director and actress Sheri Hagen (Auf den zweiten Blick, Fenster Blau).

In 2007, the Berlinale had a special screening in the Panorama section: a 109-minute program of short films called ‘NEW PERSPECTIVES – Black artists in German film,’ featuring work by Todd Ford, Ezra Tsegaye, Sebastian Kühne, Branwen Okpako, John A. Kantara, Winta Yohannes, Otu Tetteh and Diegonante. For now, we’re hoping next year’s festival will return to this earlier political impulse by showcasing and acknowledging the over five decades of Black perspectives in German cinema.

Additional Info

Director: Ibrahim Shaddad

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