Fortschritt im Tal der Ahnungslosen

Progress in the Valley of the People Who Don’t Know
Florian Kunert
2019

09.02.2019 16:30 Eng. subtitles CineStar 8
13.02.2019 12:30 Eng. subtitles Kino Arsenal 1
15.02.2019 19:30 Eng. subtitles CinemaxX 6
17.02.2019 19:30 Eng. subtitles Delphi Filmpalast

67 min. German, Arabic.

During the GDR era, the “Valley of the Clueless” in Saxony was too far from both Berlin and the former West Germany to receive TV broadcasts from there. Back then, life was simpler, recalls one resident in Florian Kunert’s film – in stark contrast to today, where the region has become the focus of much negative media attention for its widespread xenophobia. Born in 1989, Kunert grew up here. In his film, he conducts an experiment: Among the ruins of the former state-owned farming equipment factory “Fortschritt” (Progress), he stages cinematic recollection both in front of the camera and via editing. He has the young Syrian refugees living here today meet with former factory workers. Songs of the Free German Youth movement, East German Trabant cars and even a horse initiate reenactments whereby the protagonists become performers of their own stories. Archive material from when the friendship between Syria and the GDR was celebrated is contrasted with contemporary footage of gatherings of the far-right Pegida movement. Kunert’s work as a director resembles that of a therapist, one who seeks to understand a complicated present by engaging with a past that resists any simple retelling. (Dorothee Wenner)

Florian Kunert was born in Sebnitz, East Germany in 1989. He studied documentary film directing at the Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV in Cuba and completed his postgraduate studies at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne. Florian Kunert works as an author and director. Fortschritt im Tal der Ahnungslosen is his first feature-length film.

The legacy of the GDR and its ramifications

Since October 2014, every Monday thousands of people gather in Dresden under the name ‘Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West’ (PEGIDA) in order to protest against Germany’s asylum policies. Why is the outcry so much greater and more violent in East Germany than in the rest of the country? 
I started to research this question by looking into the past of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). I was particularly interested in the psychological significance of the GDR’s fall in 1989. Many people’s sense of personal identity was deeply shaken by their loss of national identity. But passive participation in the peaceful revolution did not necessarily involve an inner processing or an understanding of how one might have been influenced by the GDR regime. 
As a child of parents who lived in the GDR, I wanted to explore the deep complexities and contradictions of this loss. I decided to focus on the ‘Tal der Ahnungslosen’ (Valley of the Clueless – ed.), a region of East Germany that did not receive TV signal from the West and therefore did not have an alternative source of information to the propaganda of the GDR. This area is now the heartland of the PEGIDA anti-immigration movement. 
I had to find a visual language that could render visible the often subtle social conditioning that took place in the day-to-day of the GDR. The experimental character of the re-enactments in the film helps to transcend the dominant, often nostalgic narrative of personal history, and to create a space for an instinctive choice of words with which to talk about personal memories. By bringing in their own contemporary political context, the Syrian asylum seekers who appear in the film play an important role in terms of finding a new perspective on the history of the GDR.
I was born in 1989 and although I did not experience the GDR directly, I have often wondered to what extent I am a part of its collective memory. The TV footage from the GDR archives helped me find the images missing from this sense of memory. The film transfers these memory images into the former factory building ‘Fortschritt’ (Progress – ed.), which closed down in the 1990s and was then used as a home for asylum seekers. The act of transferring historical significance to a building and then filming its demolition has something liberating about it that allowed me to retrospectively engage with the history of the GDR. FORTSCHRITT IM TAL DER AHNUNGSLOSEN thus becomes a space in which to question the legacy of the GDR and its possible repercussions in the present day. (Florian Kunert)

Interview with Florian Kunert: “It is definitely a predicament for my generation, to be so close to a lived experience”

Poh Lin Lee: Can the film’s title, FORTSCHRITT IM TAL DER AHNUNGSLOSEN (Progress in the Valley of the People Who Don’t Know), also be understood as a question?

Florian Kunert: I am certain that many people will see this title as a provocation. But I hope that the film processes this metaphor so thoroughly that it does not remain superficial, avoiding mere finger-pointing.

So it is a kind of a question, but it is also an invitation to explore this question in depth?

Exactly. The film itself is provocative throughout, like the title. And we tried to edit the film in such a way that it always remains on the edge. As soon as you think, ‘Oh, this is too provocative,’ the film takes a step back, inviting your reflection. The film constructs something that is then deconstructed and reflected upon. That was our working method. It was very difficult to draw this very fine line in the edit, and to evoke the legacy of the GDR in a provocative manner without overstepping this line. 

How did you know when the provocation was excessive? Did you rely on discussions with your team, or did you have other means to help you navigate this edge?

This was one of the difficult parts of the shoot. The problem was that I am not simply an outsider trying to objectively assess this line. I am also one of the victims of this era. This made it very difficult for me to draw a line, and that is why it was sometimes breached during the shoot. On the other hand, I was also overly sensitive at times. But I hope that at least in the edit there was enough time, reflection and distance to what happened to find a thoughtful way of incorporating it in the film. 

You mentioned that the film’s structure is built upon provocation and subsequent deconstruction. It sounds like the actual process of making the film had a similar structure, in a way. At the time, did you realise that the process of shooting the film started to reflect the structure of the film? 

It is only something that I became aware of after the first days of shooting. We started shooting in 2015, but then I had to stop because some things got out of hand, there was too little preparation. Thinking back on those four days of shooting, I realised that one of the days had gone really well. It became clear to me that what was important was this collective dimension, this shared meditation on a topic that we were approaching playfully until we suddenly encountered a truth regarding the past experiences of one of the protagonists. The point was to first be shocked by this encounter and then to rely on the same playfulness and time that had got us there to get us back out. I realised that this had to be the method for the whole shoot. I kept that in mind while planning the rest of the production.
The challenge, which at the same time is a kind of tool used by the film, is that the Syrians have a completely different social conditioning. Culturally, but also in terms of age: they are between 20 and 30 years old, whereas the former workers from Fortschritt are all German and between the age of 65 and 85. That was a challenge. It was more difficult to access the memories of the older German protagonists. We wanted to transcend the kind of narrative that would divide the group into bearers of wisdom on the one hand, and listeners on the other. I had set myself the task of establishing a relatively horizontal relationship amongst the actors, despite their different origins. It was very difficult because of the power imbalance, which in this context mainly arose because of the Syrians’ refugee status and because of the age difference. In the editing room, we tried to foreground the moments when it was the Syrians’ turn, shifting the focus through the edit.

Why did you want to level out the power imbalance in the edit? Was it an ethical consideration, to be particularly careful about the way people are portrayed in the film, or was this imbalance just not beneficial to the film? 

With this imbalance amongst the protagonists, it would have just been old former GDR citizens telling younger Syrian refugees about their past. That would probably have been a very boring film. I was interested in this very differently conditioned perspective on the GDR past, which reveals its intensity and sometimes also its absurdity. The Syrians’ fresh, light-hearted view of our past is a perspective that is very difficult to adopt by us Germans here in Germany. I found it interesting that these Syrians, who have a completely different cultural and social background, should now be confronted with this legacy of the German past and also be unable to escape it. I did not create this confrontation, even though I did invite them to places of remembrance like the GDR museum. The refugees are confronted with a specific type of conditioning through the people they meet in their everyday life, like when they go to the doctor, for example. Every day they would tell me stories in which I could recognise this conditioning, which gives rise to behaviour that is much more racist than in other parts of Germany. That is why I do not feel that I was exploiting them by making this film. Rather, I invited them to understand their daily experiences on a deeper level. 

What do you think this fresh Syrian perspective can give back to German society? Could this new perspective on the GDR really contribute something to German history?

It is really difficult to answer this question. For me, their perspective does make certain things visible.

Was your intention to pick up on something that is already in motion?

And to elaborate on it. When we talk about the legacy of GDR, there is a very dominant narrative about the atrocities that were committed during that time, about the people who were arrested and interrogated by the Stasi, about constant surveillance. All of that is true, of course, and it is important to have this knowledge. At the same time, this narrative is far removed from how most people in the Tal der Ahnungslosen conceive of their GDR past. Many of them do not consider themselves as victims, or they have not consciously processed the extent to which they may have been subjects of a particular system in the GDR, which was a military regime that shaped and hindered their daily lives in very subtle ways. It was often frustrating to work with people who do not reflect on these issues on their own. That is why another approach had to be found in order to get them to talk about their own past. Either a tool or this contextualisation was needed so that they could look at their own past in a new light. This is what the Syrian refugees helped achieve. 

What did the fact of not having directly experienced the GDR mean to you while making this film?

It is definitely a predicament for the members of my generation, to be so close to a lived experience without having actually participated in it. What should we do with these things that were passed on to us through our upbringing, our social context? These considerations led me to investigate what had happened in 1989 in my hometown, in the area where I grew up, in the Tal der Ahnungslosen, where the revolution unfolded differently than in Leipzig, Berlin and other cities in the GDR. And this is where it becomes difficult to discuss the subject, because there were of course destinies and experiences in my town that do not correspond to this perspective. My family’s experience therefore always plays a role when I address this question. 

(Interview: Poh Lin Lee, Nice, November 2018)

Production Stefan Gieren, Florian Kunert, Dr. Sabine Schulz, Frank Döhmann, Sarah Scheier. Production company The StoryBay UG (Salzwedel, Germany), Kunsthochschule für Medien (Cologne, Germany). Written and directed by Florian Kunert. Cinematography Joanna Piechotta. Editing Ian Purnell, Florian Kunert. Music Stefan Galler, Franziska Henke. Sound design Stefan Voglsinger. Sound Stefan Voglsinger, Christian Bläsche. With Majed Alsaid, Hasan Jamjoom, Salem Alkadro, Basil Al Hasso, Christian Tuschling, Gerda Tuschling, Heike Kunert, Uta Müller, Klaus Kremer, Jürgen Lippmann.

Premiere February 09, 2019, Forum

Films

documentaries: 2017: Oh Brother Octopus (27 min., Berlinale Shorts 2017). 2019: Fortschritt im Tal der Ahnungslosen / Progress in the Valley of the People Who Don’t Know.

Photo: © tsb / Joanna Piechotta