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Being in a Tidy Garden

Though it does not cater to large festival crowds, the 6th Globians Doc Fest Berlin that took place August 13 - 18 hosted several world premieres and nearly twenty international filmmakers and guests. Joachim Polzer, Globians founder and programmer, talks about patient curatorship, the future of independent filmmaking and the importance of encounters.

August 13 - 18, 2010
Kino Toni
Berlin / Germany

Globians is a "filmmaker's festival" with no competitions and awards that provides a forum for directors who meet with their international counterparts to discuss their works and exchange information and contacts. With each festival day structured around a specific theme, the festival successfully blends high-profile feature documentaries that go on to collect festival awards elsewhere with short documentaries, essays, reports and experimental works that border on videoart. Festival curator Joachim Polzer sees the long-term meaning of the festival in accumulating a rich archive of films that would allow for intriguing selections and screenings and discusses the possibilities and dead ends for independent filmmakers and documentaries today.


Being in a Tidy Garden: An Interview with Joachim Polzer
by Jana Kadrevis
Berlin, August 18, 2010


Could you briefly explain the philosophy behind Globians? What does it mean to be a globian?

Basically, the story behind Globians was that I am a documentary filmmaker myself and back in 1991 I directed a portrait of German-Jewish emigrant Kurt B. Delbanco who made his living in the U.S. with crafts and tools for fine artists but he later became an artist himself. His art was a unique combination of the Bauhaus style in synthesis with Goethe's concepts of colour, shape and organic structures. During the three-week shoot, he once said: "We're all globians." So this was a synthetic word from the Jewish emigrant and exile environment. It put a seed in my mind and I thought, one day I might use this term globians to do something else. In 2004, after nearly 15 years when I was looking for a name, trademark for what I intended to set up, globians came up again so I named the festival globians. Of course, there are other connotations to the term - cosmopolitan attitude, the world inhabitants... 

We are focused on world and culture topics. Basically, we're an anthropology festival, in the broad sense of the word. There's always this misunderstanding in German when dealing with anthropology versus ethnology and the difference between social and cultural anthropology. In order to escape that, I just call it a world and culture documentary film festival, meaning both world cultures and cultural worlds. It has a broad scope.

You launched the festival in Potsdam and moved it to Berlin two years ago. How has it changed the festival?

We started with the first call for submissions in 2004 and the first festival took place in Potsdam in 2005. It was a strong wish of the filmmakers to move from Potsdam to Berlin because as we have so many English-speaking filmmakers visiting the region, it was always an extra burden for them to travel to Potsdam. Also, our time in the old city hall in Potsdam came to an end. The old city hall has been turned into a museum so no more chance to rent it out for the festival. We did the first festival in Berlin at another cinema but then we found the connection to Michael Verhoeven and Senta Berger and this filmmaker-driven cinema, Kino Toni in Berlin, Weissensee. It's not a trendy place, it's a special venue for culture events. Weissensee was in former East Germany so they took the DEFA film heritage into serious consideration and invited a lot of filmmakers and actors from the GDR period as remembrance of the past here in the east. So the pitch to bring an English-language film festival to this Russian-influenced region has brought a new impulse to them and I was very happy that they did so and gave us a new home.

Is there a growing interest in English-language films in the area?

Well, we have a mature audience rather than young people. People around forty have now had more than ten years of DVD experience with the possibility to switch languages and to have the original language with German subtitles or even transcript of English-language films in the original language with English subtitles. So the colloquial understanding of English is growing in our generation. Of course, we've had complaints from a few people over sixty... But my basic concept was to bring English-language documentaries to Germany and to promote this openness to English which is our lingua franca.

Your festival is not really focused on audiences or large crowds. You also describe the event as "by filmmakers for filmmakers..."

That's correct.

Nonetheless, you have an astounding number of guests every year.

And we don't pay them to come, that's the most astonishing thing. It's a grass-roots, self-help project because we have still quite a few TV channels for culture content - ARTE, 3sat, third channels of the regional networks - that still provide good programming. However, it has become so cheap with digital technology to produce documentaries that all channels are filled and packed with home-grown documentaries.  There's really no forum for English-language documentaries in Germany. Of course, the most high-profile, high-quality films are featured at the large festivals like DOK Leipzig. But I always had the feeling that the rich independent scene by North American and Australian filmmakers and filmmakers from the British Isles is missing here. When I had the opportunity to spend a year in the United States, I was just amazed at how good their films are. I mean, Ken Burns and Errol Morris do make it to ARTE but the young up-and-coming filmmakers and the rich academic scene in film production in Canada and USA is hardly ever seen here. So I was curious to get in touch with them and the open call for submissions was very successful. But you're right in that it's hard to get any mass audience. We do what we can in terms of promotion on the radio and in the press, we have a good relationship with ExBerliner, the major English-language magazine for expats.

Does your funding come largely from submission fees?

Yes. A large chunk of the budget is submission fees which we keep on a scale to allow submissions from students. It's between 0 and 150 euros and we use the airline ticket sales model - the sooner you come, the cheaper it is. But you still have to deal with vanity submissions so if people want to have a screening of their film just three days before the final deadline, they have to pay. And they do. And so that's fine with us and that's fine with them. Sometimes we find a masterpiece there, often not. The good films are spread out across the entire call for submissions.

Globians is also a strongly curated project which gives you a lot of options because the films can communicate on the basis of the subject regardless of whether they are theatrical docs or television products.

Yes, the only concern is always quality. Our scope ranges from Deep Green - a two-million dollar film funded by Briggs’s [Matt Briggs, director of Deep Green, Ed. Note] private money - to the very small films, like Stefano Giannotti's film [The Walbrzych Notebook, Ed. Note], which is a piece of art more reminiscent of Bill Viola than Joris Ivens or Pennebaker style. I assume it was very cheap to produce but it was a labour of love. So you have this entire scale. It's about openness to see what's coming in and how it might fit in and to provide a scope of diverse attitudes and attires on different subjects.  However, I always feel that making a horizontal, annual programme is a work in its own right, by combining and compiling films. As we don't have mass audiences like other festivals, and it's such a volunteer festival where filmmakers come at their own cost and out of their own interest, I believe that the real value of the festival is in the archive. Although we don't have any rights, we know where the rights are and after a few years, maybe 10 years, we'll have a rich vertical programming because we'll be able to dig not only through the years in terms of topics but also time. So as the globalization discourse continues, we can also add a history dimension into the curatorship, that's my intention or promise or reward as a result of my work.

Is there too much concern today for internationally appealing films? Does this sales-driven approach produce too many documentaries that are too easily digestible?

I mean, our American friends do know how to market. And they know how to market internationally. But we're looking from the outside on their work. And if they try to market Heidegger to us as a truly American hero [referring to Being in the World, dir. Tao Ruspoli, Ed. Note], we notice that. It's fine if people like it but if you are a documentary gourmet, you notice that and you can deal with it without blaming them for doing so. It also has its place, it's also an art and good craftsmanship to present Heidegger so that people don't switch off after two minutes. That's the other side of it. We don't have that much access to films that are able to do this. We can learn from that if we disregard the sales pitch, contentwise and in the structure and style of the film.

What options and venues are still available for films that fall outside this box?

We're living in the world of transition in media. Television seems to be fading out despite still having the money distribution chain where the structure is sustained but the outcome is more and more questionable. We see new try outs and trials of online distribution, with very mixed results.  We see this oligopolization of e-commerce with Google and especially Apple. And the three or four globally dominant trusts like Apple and of course Amazon collect huge amounts of rights and availability. But even if your documentary is available on iTunes, it doesn't mean it's being sold.

Is there a way out?

Matt Briggs suggested that we should go back nearly a century, to the days of Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks...

To create a satellite channel collective...

Yes, to reestablish the United Artists in particular fields. However, if television is fading out, then satellite doesn't make that much sense. So we're in this world of transition and I think that the most important point is good curatorship and quality access to nutritious content. My big hero in music is John Buckman of who made his money with a Linux software product. He has an excellent taste in music and founded the online label that also sells rights. They started with download sales and now are more into the subscription model. I think if it leads to that and the community will grow, someday we'll be able to connect with other filmmakers to establish something new.  The answer for tomorrow is not Facebook. It's something else. It's not in the monopolies. It's more in the tidy garden atmosphere. If you have a nice garden that's cultivated and curated, people like to be there. We need lots of gardens in music, culture and art and no monopolies.

Do festivals contribute to maintaining the current system? What are your objections to large festivals?

Well, I don't like the masses at big festivals where you have to stand in line for four hours, with nearly no online ticket sales possible. It's the loss of oversight and of what we call begegnung - meetings, encounters. Of course, the professionals visit these festivals to meet their peers and for them it's just a matter of dialling ten phone numbers and setting up meetings. That's why the huge festivals are convenient for the pros.

What's left in it for the filmmakers themselves?

Of course, the filmmaker takes some benefit. They have a large audience and it's always nice for a filmmaker to see the reactions of thousands of viewers. But I highly doubt that selling a film to a sales agent at a festival does work, especially for new and up-and-coming filmmakers.

When it comes to documentary projects and raising funds, do you think that pitching and similar events that try to facilitate funding still have a chance today or need to be replaced by a better model?

I don't like speed dating and I don't like pitching when it comes to the level of speed dating. That's just my personal taste. I understand that it's a market mechanism because of the imbalance between the number of projects and the filmmakers and the very few funders. But this imbalance is not a healthy situation. We benefit from it because we get offered so many good films. My focus would be not on adapting the system but rather on finding a use for the huge amount of good works and excellent artistic results. We need more channels for exhibition that are in the hands of curators and not commissioning editors who try to fit something into something highly strange and debatable, without any artistic point of view.

How does a North American documentary film get to Germany?

It's basically three chains. The first one is HBO co-production on a worldwide scale, the second one is when BBC, Nick Fraser is involved and German public television jumps in, and the third one is sales companies like Films Transit in Montreal, who for fifteen years have been doing a great job in bringing English-language docs to European networks. But if you're not part of the three, currently you're quite lost. And then your only chance to get some kind of notice is to try your best with film festivals, which still is no guarantee that your film makes it. But at least you have a chance to get exposition in different countries, to be included in catalogues and the credit that your film has shown in Berlin or San Sebastian...

What is it like for young German filmmakers who try to raise funds for their projects that might not be suitable for television?

In Germany we have the documentary association AGDOK who are doing a great job in complaining to get more money for documentary productions. Basically, we have too many documentary filmmakers for few and ever decreasing number of television slots. But still, my complaint about the general situation is that our channels are crammed and stuffed and filled with too much home-grown produce for the sake of German documentary filmmakers. That's not my problem though because I never tried to be part of that production chain. I've always stood on the independent side. I can understand that a German filmmaker wants his film aired to be considered a professional documentary filmmaker. Of course, German filmmakers also try to get access to funding and subsidies which are still quite abundant in different states of Germany.

What's your view of television slots and TV formats, that have lately been sweeping the industry?

I think it's ugly, it's disgusting...

Take, for example, something like The Triumph of Astana, with 2 1/2 hours the longest film in your programme. It's a slow walk through the architectural Disneyland of Kazachstan's new capital...

No chance on German television.

You can't imagine it could be edited to fit a particular TV slot...

No, absolutely not. It would destroy the film. As far as I know Birk [i.e., Birk Weiberg, director of The Triumph of Astana, Ed. Note], and I've known him for thirteen years, that's not something in his intentions. Sometimes it's better to refuse to be part of something and stay true to your work because in the end it pays off. It may take twenty, thirty years but in the end it pays off to stay true to yourself.

The festival screened several remarkable films by documentary filmmakers under 30 (The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical; The Man Behind the Curtain; God Went Surfing with the Devil; Human Eaters) as world premieres. All of these filmmakers show great savvy but, at the same time, a sensitive approach without whitewashing very complex subjects.

Yes, they have now the benefit of being born after the shift from analogue to digital technology and they already consider this as an established form of expression and they have excellent training. I still have great admiration for academic traning in North America. And you see the results. It's mindblowing. You physically feel the power of their work and personality to bring documentary film as an art form from the 60s, 70s and 80s right into this century. It's so good to see this in our world of the 3D hoax that purists are coming again. But purists of a different generation who bring the power of youth into the whole thing, which makes it very lively and interesting.

And Sarah McCarthy's film The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical will be screened at the Toronto IFF in September...

We're pleased that she was so generous because that's the positive side effect of organizing a summer film festival when there’s a very laidback atmosphere in Berlin. We have our struggles to fill our theatre with people but the side effect of having an early August slot is that we by accident get world premieres of films that have a huge festival impact. But we're not fishing for compliments, we're just looking for good films. Even if a film has screened in Eberswalde or Neubrandenburg, we don't hesitate to reshow it in Berlin, we're no chauvinists, we simply like good films.

What are your plans for Globians? You've mentioned bringing English-language documentaries to Stuttgart this autumn...

In the first year we went to a tiny village in Iceland and took some films with us. We're now looking for other occasions because there are so many good films out there. We need to do more and we're doing it here without any academic or museum curatorship context. So there is this possibility in Stuttgart at the Linden Museum on world cultures. So we're trying to make a three-day test run this November to see how Stuttgart people like our offer of English-language documentaries. It's Globians Doc Fest Stuttgart with a separate call for submissions and if we and the Linden Museum think it's a success we'll presumably continue. If it's not Stuttgart, then maybe in another city... We received 250 submissions for Stuttgart, which shows there is a great interest and that in our field of documentary curatorship - world and culture, anthropology and ethnology - there are too few venues and too many good films that want to be screened.  The Czech Republic is well-served with Karlovy Vary IFF, One World Festival, Jihlava IDFF and Academia Film Festival in Olomouc but maybe we could bring one or two days of Globians fare to Brno...

Are there any filmmakers from this year’s Globians lineup you'd recommend to keep an eye on?

Well, all of them... Sarah McCarthy is a huge talent and she also has the gene for success that you need too. Not only talent, but also luck and this drive for success. And even though we're a grass-roots event, if we have some new stars in our hemisphere, we're gonna show them. And she got the premier slot for her film. And even Senta Berger, our biggest acting star in this hemisphere who attended the premiere, liked her film very much so it was a good fit. And, of course, also Joshua Woltermann with The Man Behind the Curtain, shows an intrinsic talent for going really deep to understand the human condition.

Since you don’t like big film events, I assume you are dedicated to keeping Globians a truly sustainable event?

We'll see. We'll see how the costs are... I don't know how long I can keep up the project... But filmmakers are not complaining about our audience figures and they're happy to be here in Berlin and to meet each other. For example, Amanda Pope [director of The Desert of Forbidden Art, Ed. Note] who is based in L. A. met Matt Briggs from Oregon here in Berlin for the first time... Also, some of them stay longer and come back to talk to the other filmmakers over lunch. They also learn something about their country here which they wouldn't be able to see on television because the festival has a great scope of diverse levels and films.

Have you noticed any shift in subjects, filmmaking approach over the last several years?

It takes some time for a festival to be known in the independent scene. Our submission figures went initially from 70, 80 to 150 in the third and to 300 in the fourth year. And if you have more incoming submissions, you're able to see this. But I've noticed that the films are getting better regardless of the topic or genre and the level of digging deep is increasing. That's all a good sign and it’s encouraging to continue to see how far we can go. Nothing lasts forever but there is still a lot of potential.

I think that as festivals take over a lot of programme cinema work - because cinema distribution doesn't work too well either with this technology shift - it is becoming more and more serious to create and maintain festival archives. That's also why I'm doing a PhD dissertation on Media Preservation at FAMU in Prague and my special focus is on how to preserve video disk content. Although festivals are always tied to glamour and temporary visibility in the public, the real significance is to combine festivals to the archive world and that is not very far from sustainable distribution modes that are beyond the standard distribution cycle of Amazon and the like.

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Born in 1962 in Stuttgart, Joachim Polzer is a film historian, publisher, author and festival programmer. In 1995, he received an M.A. at Freie Universität Berlin (Theatre & Film Studies, Political Science and Religion Studies). Since 1985, he has directed more than ten documentary films. In 1996 he was one of the 26 co-founders of the Internet Movie Database Ltd. (IMDb) in London, which was sold to in 1998. In 1999 he founded the Polzer Media Group GmbH Potsdam, a book publishing company dedicated to cultural history of media technology. Since 2004, founder and curator of Globians Doc Fest Berlin International Documentary Film Festival. Currently he is completing his PhD. on media preservation at FAMU, Prague.