Black German Film at the Berlinale: African-German Filmmakers Hope to Open Up 'New Perspectives'
The African-German community has a long history, but the sizeable minority is often overlooked in a country where being German is often considered to mean being white. Now a group of black German filmmakers is trying to change that.
A teenage girl finds her life turned upside down when her father, who she has never met, turns up. After some initial distrust, she begins to develop an affection for him. Even though she still blames him for abandoning her mother, she begins to understand that life is about making difficult choices -- until she finds out her father has established a new one with another woman.
Winta Yohannes' "Cherish" is a universal coming-of-age story.
But the film is more than just that. Yohannes, who was born in Eritrea and moved to Germany at the age of three, is showing her film at this year's Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) as part of the series "New Perspectives." Her film is informed by her experiences growing up in Germany -- a country where the black minority is next to invisible.
That's something the organizers, the association Black Artists in German Film (SFD), is trying to change. "We want to make people aware of the fact that black filmmakers are making films which avoid the old clichés and represent black life as we see it," says SFD's Philippa Ebéné.
Her colleague Carol Campbell feels the Berlinale presence is also motivating for black German filmmakers. "It's a form of empowerment," she says.
The series features six short films that aim to represent the breadth of black filmmaking in Germany -- from Yohannes' coming-of-age story, to "You Are Welcome!," a documentary featuring interviews with German visitors to Ghana, to "Diver," a cartoon about a German superhero.
However Yohannes emphasizes that black German filmmakers see themselves as complementing the mainstream. "We are not trying to segregate or differentiate ourselves," she says. "Rather, we're coming together in order to become visible."
They have a hard task ahead of them. Black Germans, who generally refer to themselves as Afrodeutsche or African-Germans, have to constantly fight to be accepted as German -- for many people within and outside Germany, being German is synonymous with being white.
It's not known exactly how many African-Germans live in Germany -- one legacy of the Holocaust is that census data in the country does not include ethnicity or religion -- but estimates range from 100,000 to 500,000.
"New Perspectives" is a series of films made by African-German filmmakers and being shown at this year's Berlinale.
The community's roots go back several centuries. One of the earliest known African-Germans was Anton Wilhelm Amo, who came to Germany in the 18th century as a child slave from what is now Ghana and became a philosopher and professor at Halle University. Campbell and Ebéné are currently working as creative producers on a film production which tells Amo's story.
"New Perspectives" also features a documentary, "And We Were Germans," about one of the best-known African-Germans, Hans-Jürgen Massaquoi, who grew up in Germany during the Third Reich. His memoir "Destined to Witness: Growing Up Black in Nazi Germany" -- whose cover shows the young Massaquoi wearing a swastika badge -- was a bestseller in Germany and was made into a TV movie.
Struggling to gain a foothold in the market
Despite the size of the community and its long history, there is a widespread assumption in the German film industry that films with black characters cannot be commercially successful. On the rare occasions that black characters are featured in German productions, they tend to be occupying stereotyped roles.
Ebéné, who is a scriptwriter herself, explains the problems that black filmmakers face. An African-German author might write a script with a female African-German lead and a male white lead. The script gets accepted -- but only on the condition that the African-German character gets rewritten as a white character. "The author has to consider if she wants to leave her script in a drawer or if she wants to go along with the wishes of the director," Ebéné says. "Many black filmmakers make films where the end product turns out to be completely white."
African-German actors also have difficulty in gaining a foothold. "Either filmmakers cast black people in roles that black people wouldn't want, or they don't cast black people at all," says Campbell, who is one of Germany's few successful African-German actors.
Campbell says she has been lucky in that "only about half" of her roles have been stereotyped -- she says she typically gets cast as the "exotic" mistress. In her experience, German filmmakers only use black characters when the plot demands it. "There always needs to be a logical explanation of why the character is black," she says. "It's always used to represent difference and never overlap, always 'this is different' and never simply 'black life in Germany.'"
"You always have to explain why the flight attendant or the doctor is black -- they can't just happen to be black," adds Ebéné. "On the other hand, you never need to explain why the asylum-seeker or prostitute is black."
Even when African-German actors are cast in roles, often there is a subliminal reinforcing of stereotypes. "You have the situation that an African-German who looks, in my opinion, quite German and has say a Hamburg accent is cast as an asylum-seeker," says Ebéné. "The message that's being sent out is that this person simply doesn't belong here."
"There is no Denzel here"
Yohannes feels that black filmmakers in Germany have a lot of catching up to do compared with the United States, where the Black Filmmaker Foundation is an integral part of the filmmaking scene. "US films may be further forward but they had to fight for that -- it didn't just happen," she says. "That's why we have come together -- to change things."
Ebéne too feels things have a long way to go in Germany. "There is no Denzel Washington here," she says.
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