Sprechen Ze Deutsche?

by Alida Tomaszewski

Opening night: back-dropped by a classy, chandelier supporting, antique mirror-toting Como Cinema complex, the schmoozy banter and fight for finger food begins. Hundreds of people gather in cordoned-off areas as polite conversation is made during the wait for opening night’s film of choice, The Baader-Meinhoff Complex. Whilst trying to observe the crowd I hover around the V.I.P area (much less subtly than intended it turns out), when a woman turns to me to strike up a friendly conversation – only she’s speaking in German, and my eyes are glazing over. I let her finish a seemingly long introduction before I apologize for my limited/non-existent knowledge of German. This revelation is met by marked surprise, which is then met by my marked surprise at her marked surprise. It begs the question as to what audience this festival is attracting, and are they attracting who they want to attract? Peter Krausz, Melbourne-based festival organizer believes “the real mandate the festival has is to promote German culture in Australia.” My question is, to whom? One would think not just to the Germanophones of Melbourne.

“From a cultural point of view our goal is to create an awareness of the variety of artistic expression, life-style and talent in Germany” says Klaus Krischok, AFGF festival director. “It’s to help German film find an audience abroad, in this case, Australia. One thing that irks me is that some Australians perceive the festival of German films as a community event, that it’s here for the Germans, and that’s definitely not the case. The questionnaires we took in 2007 told us this. It can seem like a community event because we have a lot of Germans, but we did a survey of 1000 people, 500 in Sydney, 500 in Melbourne and we found that 66% of the cinema goers have had no previous contact with Germany. So two thirds of festival goers have no German connection, and one third who do have that strong German connection. We also discovered the average age is 39 years, 60% female, a middle to upper income group, and mostly tertiary educated. Reasons to come are varied…” The man knows his numbers.

However, in comparison with my experiences, Krischok and I will have to agree to disagree, despite his miraculous statistics. Despite his test group of a thousand, perhaps Krischok is himself aware of the lack of targeted-presence at his festival. “Our target audience is not 55 year old Germans, our target audience is 33 year old Australians. The goal is to not necessarily grow [our numbers], but to find the right kind of audience, an appreciative audience. But I know from experience that the quality of the audience (be they German or otherwise, 55 or 21 years old) is very very good.” This is undoubtedly true, the audience is film literate and highly engaged, but from what I’ve experienced in six days of non-stop AFGF attendance, they have not managed to bring in Australians in a way that would make the festival feel less like the community celebration that so irks it’s director.

Admittedly, Opening Night’s audience might not be entirely indicative of the larger festival demographic. However, I find myself almost at the half way point of the AGFF, and my sense of the demographic has not changed. During panel discussions audience questions were laced with thickly-accented questions of East/West German issues and other socio-political queries specific to the nation – seemingly questions from the German community with answers for the German community. The Festival of German Films does not manage to resonate with the cultural interests of the general Australian public to the same extent as the French and Italian film festivals. “The French Film Festival is a bit of an exception because it’s older”, says Krischok. “It happens in more cities and has even more of an audience than ours”. Krischok feels that The French Film Festival is probably the benchmark, even if it currently feels like an unattainable goal. “One could say that we’d like to get to the level of the French Film Festival which won’t happen ’till…I don’t know when.”

In aiming to etch out a space for German traditions in the contemporary world’s ‘cult of culture’, the AFGF is trying to accomplish that which has not even been achieved by Germany itself. The Australian collective cultural consciousness has become ingrained over decades with multicultural elements. The German culture however does not yet pervade the international market or inhabit international consciousness to the extent of its French and Italian counterparts, whose cultures and traditions pervade our own through food, music, art, language and in this case, film.

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4 Responses to “Sprechen Ze Deutsche?”

  1. Dina Iordanova Says:

    Hi, this is a fascinating report on one of the most important issues related to diasporic film festivals. We are very interested in seeing more work on the matter of how film material is being distributed to the diaspora (and festivals are a key piece in the puzzle here), and, of course, if this material ever goes beyond the diasporic consumption for which it is primarily destined. I have seen extensive evidence that, in the case with Indian film, even if primarily targeting diasporic audiences, in the UK it has now begun traveling far beyond that. Interesting to see what is the case with European material.

  2. Thomas Gerstenmeyer Says:

    Hi. Very interesting piece indeed, particularly for me as a German national living and working abroad, as a practitioner who has organised similar events in Germany and the UK, and, more recently, as someone involved in academia. I fully agree with the last paragraph. I believe that format and audiences for these types of events are strongly influenced by how the culture in question has been perceived historically. Certainly in the case of 20th Century German history this perception has been heavily influenced by factors other than culture or film. From a practitioner’s perspective the key issue therefore is to break down these threshold barriers in order to reach a “tipping point” where an event like the AGFF becomes more than simply a “community celebration” (a film festival’s “celebration” aspect is a desired one after all). A key issue for study of diaspora film culture certainly could be what leads to transcending these types of boundaries, and what happens once you’ve gone beyond (maybe even in the curious case of German films in Australia…)

  3. Alida Tomaszewski Says:

    Hi Thomas, the issues that you’ve fleshed out here (which also transition into notions of contemporary cultural ignorance and the resulting prejudices) deeply interests me.
    Before tackling any larger issues though, I think the first goal of a small-scale film festival such as the AFGF should be to spark the interest of a prospective (Australian) cinema-goer who otherwise would have shown, say, indifference (which from what i’ve seen is where most Melbournites stand in relation to the AFGF). In trying to achieve this, perhaps a watered-down (and probably superficial) version of the German culture needs to be injected into the masses (preferably in a bite-sized, highly digestible cultural morsel of traditional food, music or modern day celebrity) before the public can even think of digging deeper into the intricacies of foreign German mores.
    If my 14 year old cousin can have her “Le Chat Noir” poster art above her bed (a la Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen), then why a not German poster of say a Brechtain play (of which she is likely to have just as minimal historical knowledge), or even better, David Kross? Sure, it is barely the tip of the proverbial iceberg, but a little cultural gimmickry goes a long way…

  4. Dorthy Hall Says:

    A friend encoraged me to check out this website, nice post, fascinating read… keep up the good work!

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