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Berlinale Speck on the TEDDY Award and the current Queer Cinema

The Berlinale is still the only major international film festival offering official awards for the best films on gay, lesbian or transgender themes. The legendary famed Teddy awards have been offered since 1987, and following the political orientation of the Berlinale, the awards were created with the goal of enlightenment, thus breaking taboos and challenging the stereotypes dominating official and popular views of the queer and transgender communities. The daring and innovative nature of the Teddy awards (for which credit also goes to the former Berlinale director Moritz de Hadeln) is evident if the context of the late eighties is taken into account. Back then, homosexuality was still criminalized in Germany through legislation dating from the Nazi period. Also during that time, the death penalty was imposed in some countries for gay activities, and a systematic denial of AIDS was prevalent. Significant discrimination is no longer considered by filmmakers as a major issue in Germany and in many Western societies as shown indirectly in Germany by the popularity of Berlin’s gay mayor Klaus Wowereit and Volkswagen’s corporate sponsorship of a Teddy award. Further, not a single German production was among the 35 films that were competing for the awards, possibly indicating that German society has gone from toleration of gay culture to acceptance. Yet, the importance of the Berlinale’s Teddy program has not diminished. It remains a showcase for films documenting homophobia in western and more frequently non-western societies. It is a central clearing house for gay, lesbian and transgender (now also labeled trans-identity) films and related documentation, and serves as an instrument for advancing (along with Amnesty International) gay human rights issues. Last but not least, the Teddy awards provide a marketing platform that facilitates distribution of queer films to the hundreds of gay, lesbian, transgender, and progressive film festivals around the globe.

Wieland Speck worked as the assistant of Manfred Salzberger, who ran Panorama before Wieland became director in 1992. Speck and Salzberger were instrumental in establishing and organizing the Berlinale’s Teddy awards in 1987, with Wieland becoming the principal force after Salzberger’s death in 1994.

Claus Mueller: Wieland, let’s talk about the Teddies. This year, did you receive any productions about the gay, lesbian and transgender communities on themes that had not been covered in past years?

Wieland Speck: Of course, it is obvious. We have the first queer film out of Hungary and the first queer film out of Korea in the program. Certainly this happens only once so it is rather important. You can read from those films where their societies are actually at. Korea has already [become] quite advanced in the lifestyle of gay people, but the society has still not learned to talk about it. Thus, there is a contradiction between what is actually happening and what is visible in the world for Koreans in the media. This film addresses that topic and puts the theme actually on the map, so you have to talk about. In a way it is a little bit similar in Hungary. In this case it is not a young and wild filmmaker; it is an old experienced one.

CM: Conversely, did you find anything missing? One thing that struck me here is that you had only one feature film, LES TEMOINS [Andre Techine], which dealt with the topic of AIDS. What amazed me is that not a single documentary in Panorama or the other Berlinale section dealt with the topic of AIDS, though it remains a fundamental issue.

WS: The issue of AIDS has somehow become a historical issue. Andre Techine does make a very smart move. He goes back into the time in the early eighties where the word “AIDS” did not even exist. That gives a different dimension to his feature. When you do a film on AIDS today, if it is a documentary, it will not be very engaging, unfortunately, because people who are dying of AIDS today are not really dying of AIDS anymore, but are dying of illnesses prompted by the breakdown of the [immune] system after having taken too many poisonous drugs for too long. So you don’t have this dramatic situation any more that you can portray in film. The other thing you can do is to promote prevention. But this has been overstretched over the last fifteen years, and there are all these movements against it. Sort of a natural echo…if you try to manipulate it in one direction, it will work a while and then you have a counter reaction.

CM: When I discussed the scarcity of recently produced documentaries on AIDS in the States, I was advised that if there are few if any good AIDS documentaries, it is due to the fact that there is no funding for it. Is that a factor?

WS: No. I would not say that. You can make a cheap film, like the film we had on the gay pride parade in Moscow where people got beaten up. The film cost basically nothing, except for the courage of the people that made it, so money is not the issue.

CM: Is the theme exhausted?

WS: The theme seems to be exhausted. The way to approach it right now does not look in any way engaging. So it is a very difficult thing. The next person that can actually crack that nut we will absolutely worship.

CM: When discussing current queer films, do you note a specific aesthetic?

WS: Yes and no. I think you can write books about it. At the same time you will have people denying the whole thing [notion of queer aesthetic]. Gay sensibility is of course always a very strong theme, and you can notice it in the films. This year, we have some portraits of people of an older generation who did not live an openly gay life. They lived their personal, homosexual life while making careers, since they could not have pursued their career if they had lived openly gay as we do it today in some privileged parts of the world. This is Karl Lagerfeld of course; this is Yves Saint Laurent. This is, to a certain extent of course, Andy Warhol, even though he was pushing it far over the limits and helping emancipation to grow. But you have these important people who you would not call gay because they are basically homosexual individuals who do not care if it would harm their careers. They did what they did and that was the sign for their generation. It is very important to look with historical perspective on these situations because they are about strategies of survival and of success, despite being gay.

CM: To go back to the David Bowie comments that you made last year, do you have any reflection on the shift of transgendering to being a mental state of the mind rather than a radical physical transformation?

WS The view on transsexual or transgender situations has changed tremendously because it became a la mode to have a drag queen or a transgender person somewhere in the frame in the Western event world. At the same time, of course, it has a conservative aspect because the entertainment aspect is attached to it. On the other hand, transsexual people can live decent lifestyles without surgery. Everything is happening at the same time. Now the minority is very small. Again, this is of course more complicated to focus on it and to show its complexity. We do not have much [on transgendering] in the program this year. I can’t really get a grip on the theme right now.

CM: Recalling our documentary film on men opting for becoming asexual through back alley surgery [American Eunuchs], it was estimated that there are more than 2000 cases of such surgery each year in the States.

WS: It is a very interesting theme, because you could actually analyze the entire dualistic concept the world is engaged in…a concept that we have to break up. My saying is that you have men and you have women, and that these are the two extremes and humanity actually is in the middle. ‘Real men’ and ‘real women’ are a total minority.

CM: The break up of dualistic thinking and the notion of asexuality is a challenge to feminist theory.

WS: Very true.

CM: Do you plan to use the Internet to broaden the audience for Teddy material?

WS: Yes. The Teddy’s next step is the development of the Queer Academy that we launched during last year’s festival and which will be a long-term process. The objective of the queer academy is to collect all the material that the Teddy has accumulated over the past 21 years and make it available over the Internet. This will be carried out in correlation with other archivist material and projects, especially in the United States. The most advanced project is the Legacy project of Outfest in Los Angeles that works closely with UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles]. In a way that is a model for us. From the Teddy side, we are very practical. We want our material on the Internet to be used in a hands-on fashion. We do not have the rights for the films as such, but we can deliver the material surrounding the films. Thus you can access the films via the addresses that we supply and you can prepare work situations with the material that we offer. Thus, you can prepare a festival anywhere in the world, with this material provided free of charge. At this step we involve all the programmers of queer festivals worldwide, to help get us the necessary information.

CM: How many queer festivals have you brought in?

WS: I do not have an exact number, but at the meetings we have each year, about 100 [programmers] participate.

CM: Wieland, one more questions. Which films from this year are so noteworthy that you would recommend them to others directing queer film festivals?

WS: Definitely SPIDER LILLIES, Taiwan, Dir. Zero Chou; RIPARO, Italy, Dir. Marco Simon Puccioni; NO REGRET, Korea, Dir. Lee Song Hee; and, FERFIAKT, Hungary, Dir. Karoly Esztergalyos.

These four should definitely be on all the next festival circuits because they show lesbian work, for one, and queer work of an unseen kind from countries that have never made such films before because it was not possible.

CM: Thanks.

Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent


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