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Under makeshift lighting on a stairwell-stage in a shabby block of flats, the almost exclusively migrant residents introduce themselves—children and adults, shy and brave, they describe their situations at work and school and with the language. This short documentary film, INVENTUR METZSTRASSE (1975), shot during Yugoslavian director Želimir Žilnik’s Munich period, could already be seen as the herald of a new take on migration, a shift in perspective towards the notion of the “autonomy of migration.” Things then become explicitly autobiographical in 1987 with Goran Rebić’s adorable Super 8 reenactment GEKOMMEN BIN ICH DER ARBEIT WEGEN (1987), in which the director stages his father Ratko Rebić’s migration story as a road movie in Austria. The music comes from his father’s records, including the popular “March on the Drina”, which accompanies like a refrain the restless trips between looking for work and places of work.

“Speaking nearby” instead of “speaking about”

In the nineties, strategies for an empowered treatment of migration experiences began to open up and multiply; “speaking nearby” (Trinh T. Minh-ha) came to replace “speaking about.” In MEIN VATER, DER GASTARBEITER (1995), Yüksel Yavuz tells his family story: how his father set out in 1968 and then worked for sixteen years at a Hamburg shipyard. “I saw that my father worked like a maniac to leave traces that would compensate for the traces in his body,” while Yavuz’s mother in the Kurdish part of Turkey, which was constantly being battered by new military attacks, “was responsible for keeping everyday life going”. A fundamental principle of the migrant narrative comes into play here: an often fragmentary assemblage of the transitory, of the (non-)unity of space and time as determined by mobility. Another later foundational film of the autobiographical treatment of migration is Fatih Akin’s WIR HABEN VERGESSEN ZURÜCKZUKEHREN (2001).

A full-fledged history of autobiographical migrant film would go beyond the scope of this essay. Easier access to cameras, recording devices, material, and home-movie collections as well as practices of self-exploitation in cognitive capitalism promote first-person-perspective formats. About ten percent of the current graduation films at the University of Television and Film Munich are autobiographical; that percentage is probably significantly higher at other film and art schools, even if there is still a long way to go before post-migrant society is adequately represented in these educational institutions.

An important shift in the discussion around migration occurred in the late nineties with the activist group “kanak attak”, a platform that vehemently distanced itself from the attributions of identity politics and whose influence is palpable in “Projekt Migration” (2005-2006), in universities and art academies, publications, exhibitions, film festivals, and in the nationwide alliance “Unraveling the NSU Complex” (2016/17). Their now legendary short Kanak-TV video WEISSES GHETTO (2002) positioned itself against the then widespread mainstream imperative to integrate.

The productive nineties and early 2000s broadened the field and the strategies for creating (post-)migrant self-representations, with documentary and not only autobiographical films by Seyhan Derin, Rahim Shirmahd, Angela Melitopoulos, Hatice Ayten, Serap Berrakarasu, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Sylvia Schedelbauer, Hito Steyerl, Angelika Nguyen, Wanjiru Kinyanjui, Angelika Levi, Aysun Bademsoy, Branwen Okpako, Cem Kaya, Sun-ju Choi, Mabouna II Moise/Brigitta Kuster, and others. This extends to Can Candan as well as the more fictional works of Thomas Arslan, Ayşe Polat, Fatih Akin, Hussi Kutlucan, and Angelina Maccarone. Or the coming-of-age chamber drama GÖLGE by Sema Poyraz and Sofoklis Adamidis, a family story shot already in 1980—even if it is not autobiographical or documentary—which is considered today to have launched Turkish-German cinema.

I would now like to highlight some feature-length German-language documentary films from the past decade, whose different approaches, self-representations and camera positions open up an extremely varied field. More or less coincidentally, all of them were directed by women.

Highlights on a varied field

Pary El-Qalqili stages herself with her father in a cellar room—tiled floor, bare light bulb, flat seat cushion in the corner. The setting evokes an interrogation, but in their struggle for a dialogue, father and daughter sit next to each other. In SCHILDKRÖTENWUT (2012), the director tries to get closer to her Palestinian father and his self-imposed isolation, an effort that only seems possible thanks to the presence and authority of her camera. This part of the film is defined by rigorous framings, tension, darkness, and the perceived narrowness of a life in exile in Germany; while on the trips they take together to Palestine, however, her gaze becomes more open and agile and her father’s bearing changes.

For Ines Johnson-Spain’s film BECOMING BLACK (2019), a conversation with the director’s (foster) father is also key. She grew up with the anti-racist state doctrine of the GDR as the daughter of a student from Togo. “Turning the camera on myself also meant intentionally recreating situations and being exposed to that classifying gaze from the outside that I suffered under for decades,” Johnson-Spain said in an interview. “This time of my own accord, in a kind of self-arranged laboratory situation.”

A soft melodrama with home movie moments, Kurdwin Ayub’s film PARADISE! PARADISE! (2016) explores the transnational (emotional) economies of a family that has lived in Austria since 1991. The filmmaker, along with her camera, accompanies her father to northern Iraq, where he wants to buy a flat. As a critical and often ironic witness of this project, she films with a precise eye for interiors and investment landscapes, as well as for configurations of gender and family. She often allows her father to intervene, and watches as he stages himself as a sensitive and proud Kurdish patriot with calculated optimism to spare.

Yara Haskiel’s film TSAKALOS BLUES (2014) revolves around much that is unspoken in the story of her Jewish-Greek-German family. Haskiel herself grew up in Germany; her father Gabriel was stateless and moved back and forth between Thessaloniki, Haifa, and Munich; her Sephardic grandfather, who survived his deportation to a forced labour camp in Auschwitz, was a pub owner in Munich after the war. Haskiel’s film is an imaginary cinematic family diary that never existed because the family didn’t have access to Super 8. “We only had photos.” The film orbits the many transitional spaces of migration: “a history […] in which the intrinsic ensued from a lack of connection.” (Peter Weiss). The director repeatedly passes her father the camera and encourages him to ask her questions.

In ALLEINE TANZEN (2012), Biene Pilavci, along with her family who immigrated from Turkey, follows the trail of physical and psychological violence. She uses journal entries and home movies to break open the façades of family rituals, commenting on them laconically or despairingly. Again and again, the film is berated by its subjects. The camera is at times a catalyst, at times a protective shield in the exceptional situations that change the way the family deals with its violent (class) history.

In the acoustic portrait JAHRGANG 76 (2008), which she made as a student, Serpil Turhan engages with three people from the second generation of Turkish immigration. Her special, attentive, and exhaustive approach to conversation is developed further in DILIM DÖNMÜYOR – MEINE ZUNGE DREHT SICH NICHT (Dilim dönmüyor – My Tongue Does Not Turn). She shot the film entirely herself, including cinematography and sound.

Varied stories of departure and of (non-)arrival

What happens in all of these very different documentary and essayistic films, that often only discover their main themes and consolidate themselves dramaturgically in the course of the shoot or during editing? How explicitly do they show the tension between intimate appropriation and daring confrontation in their bursting family narratives? What is renegotiated—and what is made possible in the first place—by the technically equipped authority of the filmmaker or filmmakers? How can these stories about the deprivation of rights, and the effect of working conditions on families be told without simply repeating their victimisation? The varied stories of departure and of (non-)arrival in migrant families are told through the subtle force of resistant bodies, of obstinate strategies for defying injury. There are children who protect their parents, or attack them, and make themselves vulnerable in the process. Siblings who disappear and are found again. Lost languages. To deal with the silence. The narrative first-person becomes a reversible figure that exposes itself, confirms itself, destabilizes itself. And will it ever be possible to understand one’s family better? All of the films change their makers. New, unsettling puzzles burst into this space. Some of the things left unspoken in the families correspond to things that are rendered invisible in mainstream society. But everything that is there could be connected, and the porous subject positions could be reinvented over and over again.

“Them looking at me and me looking back is important. Looking into the camera is important to me. Being direct and clear... It just wasn’t necessary for me to be in front of the camera,” Serpil Turhan says about DILIM DÖNMÜYOR – MEINE ZUNGE DREHT SICH NICHT. “I’m still there the whole time, listening and feeling. For me this was the right way to show my perspective, my relationships to these people and places, to create a new encounter, to make intimacy possible and a new space in conversation with my grandparents and parents. To sit across from them in a different way, in a new way, unlike what they were used to. Unlike what I was used to.”

Madeleine Bernstorff, texts and film programmes.

Translation: Millay Hyatt

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