Queer Cinema at the Berlinale 'Normality Will Never Exist for Gays and Lesbians'

Queer cinema is stronger than ever, but how mainstream can it become before it loses its identity? Wieland Speck, head of the Berlin International Film Festival's Panorama section, talks to SPIEGEL ONLINE about the festival's famous Teddy awards and the ongoing battle for gay and lesbian rights.

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SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would you agree that queer film is doing better than ever? Last year, the lesbian family comedy "The Kids are All Right" won the Teddy award for best feature at the Berlinale, and this year it has been nominated for an Oscar.

Wieland Speck: Hollywood carefully studies what people are ready to accept. Despite the fact that the gay movement thought that "Philadelphia" was a terrible movie at the time, it was still an important film because it reached a huge amount of people. "Brokeback Mountain" represented another developmental step, and "The Kids are All Right" is yet another step forwards. The theme this time is parenthood. It's an important subject, but, just to be on the safe side, it is being tackled from a lesbian perspective, because gay fathers would probably be less accepted (by mainstream audiences).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So Hollywood is playing it safe with this film?

Speck: Not necessarily. A Hollywood film is only a symbol of how far the level of acceptance has developed in certain countries and social classes. For example, "Brokeback Mountain" was not shown everywhere in the world, and not even in every state in the US.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But isn't it still the case that Hollywood makes movies that reflect the social consensus, while film festivals show the radical art-house movies?

Speck: The director Lisa Cholodenko (who made "The Kids Are All Right") came from the independent film background. Her films look like Hollywood productions, but have different roots. That is also how the Teddy awards began -- it later moved from the queer niche to the mainstream. It is the point where mainstream and niche meet each other, although they don't merge.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But isn't this dovetailing effect a problem for queer filmmakers? After all, the more queer cinema opens up to the mainstream, the more it loses its unique selling proposition and raison d'être.

Speck: Of course, that danger exists. It could certainly lead to a kind of backlash through over-emancipation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you mean?

Speck: We have close contact to agencies that promote filmmaking, for example. And given the fact that many gays and lesbians are getting married and having children these days, (those agencies) are beginning to ask themselves if they are really still supporting a subculture, or if they are actually promoting normality. But normality will never exist for gays and lesbians because they will always be in the minority. Emancipation does not create more gay people -- they will always remain a minority comprising between 8 and 10 per cent of the total population everywhere. That's why I don't think that queer cinema is in danger of losing its reason to exist.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Teddy awards have been around for 25 years now. How has gay and lesbian film, and those involved in it, changed over the years?

Speck: The queer scene found itself in a unique situation in 1986. At the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, gay people declared that they wanted to be accepted by society. That was a special moment and many felt a sense of euphoria. And then AIDS arrived. The Teddy awards were born at this time, which was a time of films with a fighting spirit. AIDS drove many non-political gay men -- and lesbians too -- to become political again. They realized that even if they were not physically affected by AIDS, they were definitely affected politically by the debate about homosexuality and AIDS.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you miss the fighting spirit of those times in the films of today?

Speck: A little bit -- but I am also from a generation that had no choice but to fight. Only a few countries in the world experience normalcy and can be passive. In Russia, for example, the queer community still has a lot to fight against. We were able to celebrate the first queer film festival (in Russia) in St. Petersburg in September 2010. The premiere had actually been supposed to happen two years previously, but on the opening day the city simply shut down the movie theater -- suddenly the cinema's fire safety precautions weren't up to scratch. And in the following year the authorities managed to stop the festival once again. These battles have to be fought in many countries - for example in Poland and Indonesia.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How would you describe the status quo of the queer film scene in Germany?

Speck: From a historical point of view it has always played an important role -- back in the 1920s, Berlin was already an international center for alternative lifestyles. Many of the first gay-lesbian films were made here. German queer cinema has been well represented in international festivals. This has decreased over the last few years. However, today heterosexual directors also deal with queer themes, meaning they are no longer something that is only addressed (within the queer community).

SPIEGEL ONLINE: This openness does not seem to have transferred to all aspects of the film world. In Germany, there are more openly gay politicians than there are openly gay actors.

Speck: I can understand that actors don't want to be defined by there sexual orientation. The erotic charm of an actor is essential to his success. He has only got himself and his body to convince the director that he is right for a certain role. That means you want there to be as few preconceptions about yourself as possible.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: But by saying that, you are absolving actors of their political responsibilities.

Speck: Yes, I am doing exactly that. I would not say the same thing about any other profession. But as long as actors don't speak ill of other people, I would absolve them of this political duty.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You use the English term "queer" and describe the Teddy as a "queer" film award. But this buzzword is not unproblematic. The Hamburg Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, has, for example, consciously decided against changing its name to incorporate the term "queer" because they find the word too elite and academic. They also want to make the point that words such as "gay" and "lesbian" must not be banned from society.

Speck: This reflects a discussion that is happening within the subculture. When we started the Panorama section of the Berlinale, it was still called "Info-Schau" ("Info-Show") and the films were called "gay" films. Later, when the "Tagesschau" news show (one of Germany's most popular television news shows) used the word "gay" for the first time, we were already using "gay-lesbian." By the time the mass media began using the formulation "gay-lesbian," we were already speaking of "gay-lesbian-transgender." But in this case the media didn't follow suit because, to be honest, the expression is too complicated. So a void was created that was later filled with the English word "queer."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you find the word "queer" entirely unproblematic?

Speck: No, it also has some disadvantages. The more things this word describes, the less it can be used to harness sub-cultural energy. But it is a word that connects people and that has its justification. I don't see any chances at the moment for a movement unless it is one that unites people.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How do you come to that conclusion?

Speck: When I was looking for jurors for the Teddy award, I recently kept bringing up the idea of forming two juries and separating them by gender, so we could once again create a distinction between gays and lesbians and cultivate their differences again. Some people found that interesting, others completely hated it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what became of the idea?

Speck: I've now abandoned it. The ensuing controversy would have overshadowed the award itself. But maybe it will happen in a few years' time.

Interview conducted by Hannah Pilarczyk

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