A film set in an Iranian graveyard was one of the more unexpected comedies on show this year, at a film festival celebrating provincial life.
The Provinziale is held in a town most people have never heard of: Eberswalde, population 41,000, is an hour north of Berlin.
Ina Heineke was impressed by the Iranian comedy. “I’d go and see all the films at the festival if I could,” she said, shepherding her daughters out of the screening.
The festival mostly draws locals like Ms. Heineke, as well as a few people from Berlin, an hour away. But the films’ subjects are far-flung, from East German prisons to young teens competing in athletics and love.
Music from off the beaten track was a recurrent theme this year, from a portrait of an American banjo player, to musicians in Mali exploring the roots of jazz.
Thirteen years ago, the festival set out to prove that the provinces are alive and kicking. “You can’t just write off rural life,” said Kenneth Anders, director of the festival.
Eberswalde was known in East Germany for heavy industry and suffered the same high unemployment after reunification as the rest of the former GDR. The population shrank and flats were demolished. Today the town is characterized by a cobbled square in the center, and industrial lots among lakes and forests.
Video: District Zero, a documentary about life in a refugee camp in Syria.
This year’s entries to the festival included a particularly high number of films dealing with refugees. It’s a hot topic across Germany and all of Europe, where the population is divided over how to respond to people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and North Africa.
One film selected by the Provinziale’s organizers was “Lampedusa in Winter” by Jakob Brossmann. Following both locals and newcomers to the Mediterranean island, it provides an intimate view of the concerns of those involved in the refugee situation there, from migrants to volunteers and sea rescue teams.
“Of course the refugee topic is an issue for us here as it is all over the region,” Mr. Anders said. Pockets of opposition and hostility to asylum seekers are to be found throughout Germany. Most recently, there have been demonstrations in Saxony, where angry groups heckled politicians. Some attribute particular hostility in the former East to its still homogeneous society. But arson, attacks, and the right wing Pegida movement opposing Islam have caused concern right throughout Germany.
“I think people in Eberswalde see the refugee question differently to Saxony though,” Mr. Anders said. “There was a thoughtful reception to these films, people saw there are no easy answers.”
The festival organizers want to encourage debate and an exchange of ideas, holding talks after screenings and even running the festival in a council building, which they see as more accessible than a theater or cultural center.
Mr. Anders said he saw the Provinziale as “part of a series of efforts in this town to create a civil society.” The town also hosts a jazz festival in Spring.
Running through Sunday, the festival shows films in three categories: long and short documentaries and animation. Several audience awards will be presented at the end of the festival.
Mr. Anders said it had not been hard to find films about life beyond the world’s urban centers. This year, there were 913 submissions from 70 countries. He and his fellow jurors watched each one before making a final selection. Mr. Anders said the overall quality of the submissions was very high.
Video: Lampedua in Winter shows the lives of refugees stranded on the island and the people living there who try to help them.
Among his favorites were the festival’s opening film, “Hosci” by Andrei Kutsila, a portrait of a man from Belarus, who, inspired by Mother Theresa, cares for homeless people. Others, like “Eva” by Melanie Jilg, which tells the story of a woman traveling Germany with an ox and a dog in lengthy, thoughtful scenes didn’t make for easy viewing, Mr. Anders said. But its impact stayed with him and he felt compelled to screen it.
Mr. Anders said the organizers wanted to show there was value in films that don’t attract the usual commercial popularity. “This is part of film culture too,” he said.
“Sometimes the films are hard to watch,” admitted Ms. Heineke. But she enjoyed a set of experimental shorts ranging from an animated film about a railway signal woman in Russia, to one about a girl whose life is encompassed by a song played on vinyl. “Some you don’t think will be very good and they’re the ones that stay with you, that you like best,” she said.
Ms. Heineke welcomed the chance to see these less obvious cinematic offerings on her doorstep.
“Going to the festival means I see people from around town I don’t always run into in everyday life,” she said. “It also gives me and my neighbors something else to talk about aside from the same old everyday things.”
Video: “Mali Blues” explores the roots of jazz.
It wasn’t Ms. Heineke’s first time attending the festival. “Over the years, the kinds of movies on show have changed but the broad selection really reflects the passion of the volunteers running the festival,” she said.
Local artist Sven Ahlhelm has volunteered at the festival since it started, tearing tickets and building up the staging and microphones. This year, he created a huge sculpture titled “The Gates to the Province” that frames the entrance to the festival site.
“Yes, some films are heavy but it’s amazing how much lightness you can find in some serious topics,” Mr. Ahlhelm said. Of the festival itself he said, “I’m not sure if huge changes come of it but these events invite you into a conversation.”
He added that since he moved to Eberswalde 19 years ago, life in the small town had improved, and continues to do so. And perhaps there is something about life away from the big city lights that encourages its own kind of creativity. “If people want culture, they have to go out and make it, initiate events and exhibitions. It enriches our lives together,” Mr. Ahlhelm said.
Allison Williams is deputy editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org