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Moviemakers share untold stories, rewriting GDR history

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Vietnamese-German filmmakers are rewriting the landscape of the past. Source: 42Film

Former guest worker An Nong Van-Micklisch recalled the strangeness of life in the GDR after he moved there in 1982 from a village on the border between Vietnam and China. His first shock was culinary, in the sausage and bread served at the residential facility where he lived.

He was part of a group of men from Laos and Vietnam who were to train in Saxony as mechanics and forest workers. The climate was a second shock.

“In Vietnam, when you see something light flying around, it is insects. Here, they were the first snowflakes I ever saw.” As a trainee, the language was difficult, the rules strict and the wages were low. He recalled spending his first wages on a pair of scissors, to make clothes.

One hundred years after the Russian Revolution, though much has been written about the anniversary, stories like these are absent from East Germany’s history, as are ones about the lives and families of the Vietnamese diaspora in Poland and the Czech Republic. Or of the Sorbs, a tiny ethnic minority living in remote eastern Germany.

Earlier this fall, a film festival sought to address the absence of narratives by screening movies in the small town of Cottbus, a rundown industrial town in the former east. Back in the GDR, Vietnamese guest workers were largely separated from the populace, explained Andreas Stein, who managed the festival.

He created a special section in the festival where he screened movies made by third-generation Vietnamese Germans. Their films covered the Vietnamese migrant milieu, portraying individuals living lives far from home, such as a Vietnamese woman living illegally in Warsaw, in the award-winning film “Hanoi Warszawa,” or a man who fled the Vietnam War to settle in Germany, in “The Garden of Mr. Vong.”

“People didn’t know what the guest workers’ lives were like. We wanted to make the invisible visible.”

Andreas Stein, managing director, FilmFestival Cottbus

Several films addressed the experiences of generations caught between two countries. “Mat Goc” followed third-generation hipsters from Prague back to their Hanoi roots, bringing together the clashing worlds of old-school Vietnam and eastern European dance culture. Another, “VIP – Vietnamese Important People,” looked at twenty-something youngsters of Vietnamese descent, discussing their ambitions and life in the Czech Republic.

As migration and integration – and combating racism and exclusion – are key issues in Germany, Mr. Stein said it was important to show these stories in the former GDR where suspicion of foreigners is marked, evident by movements such as PEGIDA. The films were popular, Mr. Stein said. “People didn’t know what the guest workers’ lives were like. We wanted to make the invisible visible.”

Mr. Stein’s mission to provide a fuller picture of that time extends to a separate section about the Sorbs, a minority speaking their own language in remote parts of the country. The films he screened documented repression of the Sorbs, or contrasted rural idylls with industrial realities. Others showed customs such as wedding preparations.

Though the centenary since the Russian Revolution was highlighted in at least 25 festivals from Mexico City to Tokyo, Mr. Stein was ambivalent about marking the period. “We didn’t want to celebrate it,” he said. His section, called the Bruderkuss or the brother’s kiss in English, was more a sarcastic wink and sly take on the relationship between the satellite states and Russia, the “big brother.” One of the films showed the arrests of Romanians in the GDR, for example, a little-known fact, viewers said.

“Licu, a Romanian story” tells a 92-year-old electrician’s story and his experiences in the Second World War and communism: It took the top prize at Leipzig’s film festival, also in former eastern Germany. The range of movies shown there took a critical look at modern life in Eastern Europe. One portrayed the life of a farmer and poacher, struggling to pay for his adopted daughter. Others, such as “Loveless,” by director Andrey Zvyagintsev, was a bleak feature about life in modern Russia, that dramatized its societal decay.

Ralf Eue, who selected films for the Leipzig festival, also featured documentaries made during the Soviet period, from educational pieces about Rosa Luxemburg, to a portrait of Angela Davis. He was surprised, and happy, by the number of young people who were interested. In selecting films, Mr. Eue said he didn’t want Communism to be seen as single and monolithic, nor as a closed history, but rather to leave viewers questioning clichés, assumptions and the iconography of leaders.

For Mr. Stein, of Cottbus, showing eastern European films, is also an attempt to shift Germans’ viewing habits beyond Hollywood in the future. He started that lofty goal by screening films about a forgotten past.

Allison Williams is deputy editor of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: williams@handelsblatt.com

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