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Cristina Nord: The term Fiktionsbescheinigung actually comes from a bureaucratic context, from immigration law. How did it end up becoming the title of a film programme? 

Biene Pilavci: A Fiktionsbescheinigung, which literally translates as “certificate of fictionality”, is what someone not from the EU receives in order that they can remain in Germany. The person in question makes a secondary application to stay in the country and is then given a Fiktionsbescheinigung while their application is processed. It’s akin to tacit approval they can stay for the time being, it’s a decision in their favour, as it were. What’s very telling and to my mind so typically German about all this is the need to invent a name for this particular phase.

Strictly speaking, simply making the application already permits you to stay in Germany while it’s being processed. The second interesting aspect of the term is the obvious link between fiction and film. The connection with German legal jargon isn’t immediately apparent. What we’re interested in here is the fictitious German film canon, the fictitious history of German film, neither of which actually exist in the way they are usually thought of. We want to shake up that whole rigmarole and question where the power of definition lies. 

Enoka Ayemba: The second part of the word is, of course, “Bescheinigung”, that is, certificate, a certificate someone receives so that they can stay. And that’s something familiar from art and culture too. An academy, curators, a group of exalted people get to decide who belongs to the canon, to film history, and who doesn’t, and this association was so striking that we found the term at once appropriate and almost like a punchline of sorts. But the term only works as a punchline for those not affected by it. For those dependent on a Fiktionsbescheinigung, it’s no laughing matter not to know whether they’ll be allowed to stay or not.

CN: Both this year’s and last year’s programmes include works by directors who studied in Germany and tried to work here afterwards, but weren’t able to get a foothold. I’m thinking here of Raoul Peck, Wanjiru Kinyanjui or Idrissou Mora-Kpai. All three of them left the country to pursue careers elsewhere, which could be described as a sort of reverse brain drain. I’d like to bring up the question of what the goal of Fiktionsbescheinigung is? To create an awareness of such gaps?

EA: We’re interested in the question of belonging. Which films and which filmmakers are recognised and form part of film culture as a matter of course and which aren’t? And why is that the case? For those of us who explore such themes, it was easy to name films off the top of our heads that should belong to the former category and yet actually do not. Our goal was to pick out such films, show them and then look at the reasons why they’ve been excluded. 

CN: How did you go about making the selection? 

BP: Self-determination is a key concept here. Which films are narrated in a self-determined way, which films are narrated from an internal perspective and don’t look at the everyday lives and experiences made by people of colour and Black people in Germany from the outside? My research revealed that filmmakers of colour have to be radical to be noticed. Either you concentrate on your own story of migration in radical fashion and draw on that or you develop other radical stories. Only those who attract attention are able to establish themselves.   

EA: We took a look at the film schools. That’s where people in Germany typically start out if they want to become filmmakers. We looked at the films we came across which we didn’t know. Then we asked ourselves: were the filmmakers white, were they not white, what were their biographies? And why doesn’t anyone know these films? It’s often good to ask the filmmakers directly why this is the case. 

CN: Not all the directors in the programme have remained unknown. Hito Steyerl is successful in the art world, Thomas Arslan is very established, Serpil Turhan is perhaps not as established as Thomas Arslan, but still makes films regularly and shows them at festivals. Are they just fortunate exceptions? 

BP: You have to examine things more closely. Looking at Arslan’s biography, I don’t know if I’d call it a success if I felt like I were only making a film every three years or so and had to work as a film professor to cover my living costs. To a certain extent, Hito Steyerl changed fields. In her case, I’d say that the structures in the art world seem fundamentally more open.  

EA: For us, the whole point was to show films that didn’t actually receive much of a response. We suspect that it has something to do with the themes explored by these directors of colour in their films. Perhaps they were too critical or tried to do something different than what was expected of them based on their biographies. We didn’t necessarily want to show the hundredth film about the Turkish community. An artist with a biography like Thomas Arslan can make a film that takes its bearings from French film history. Biography and cinematic oeuvre can, of course, be entirely separate. Like for all other artists too, one can always be decoupled from the another. 

CN: That’s a good way of putting it, and it explains why the films of Thomas Arslan are so remarkable. The trilogy made up by GESCHWISTER – KARDEŞLER, DEALER and DER SCHÖNE TAG was made in the 1990s and the early 2000s at a time when migration was seen exclusively as a problem, also in cinema. There were thus films problematising the issue, until Thomas Arslan established an entirely different perspective on it, a perspective that saw it as just a matter of course. Even with a dealer as the protagonist, the film sidesteps all the stereotypical perceptions one might have. For me back then, it was like a light going on: it’s about how characters are placed in space and not about Kreuzberg cliches.

At the same time, there are films in the programme that grapple with racism and racist terrorism in emphatic fashion, I’m thinking here of the works by Forensic Architecture, Hito Steyerl and Cana Bilir-Meyer. We’ve been working together for a while now, and over the course of that time, we’ve often talked about whether it makes sense to keep on and on addressing racism. The risks are considerable: viewers of colour can feel like they’re being made to relive their own painful experiences via the images on the screen, while white viewers might think that they’ve done their duty simply by engaging with racism in the cinema.

What then tends to disappear from view is the sort of freedom of approach enjoyed by Thomas Arslan when he makes a film about a young actress in Berlin who takes the U-Bahn, spends a few hours by a lake and earns a living by dubbing films. And at the same time, it doesn’t help matters to just put the subject aside. At the start of the whole Fiktionsbescheinung project, one of the curators—I think it was Karina Griffith—quoted Toni Morrison, who said that racism is a form of distraction that prevents you from recognising and thus drawing on your own potential. Even if you start working artistically, you’re thrown back to racism again and again, you constantly have to grapple with it and it’s impossible to liberate yourself from it. To my mind, that’s a big dilemma. What are your feelings about that? 

BP: Yes, it is indeed a dilemma, you’re right, or rather Toni Morrison was right. Thomas Arslan’s films, for example, are very open, he feels free to do or not to do whatever crosses his mind. If you have a job that means you aren’t dependent on anything else, then you also have the freedom to create self-determined narratives. There are no commissioning editors or other financial backers constantly trying to tell you what you should do, there’s no one demanding that you pander to stereotypes. It happens often enough that a director of colour is supposed to merely implement a story that someone else has thought up. It’s impossible to develop or thrive in such a way. Although I have to say that the Kleine Fernsehspiel, a German television strand that also provides funding, was always on board for each of the films in Arslan’s trilogy. Back then, it seems like there was less pressure to create rigid formats.  

EA: I think it’s about artists having the freedom to pick their subjects without constantly being obliged to explore their background and biography. If they then do end up exploring subjects thrown up their biography, they can usually do it much better than someone who has had other experiences, as they’re already part of things, they have an internal perspective. And we should see that as enriching our cinematic landscape. I don’t know a single director who has a genuine desire to work with racism as a theme. But on the one hand, they also have to do it. On the other, artists must have the possibility to do different things and be just as successful in so doing as their white colleagues. It’s a multi-pronged approach. 

BP: Cristina, was it a difficult decision for you to do a second edition of Fiktionsbescheinigung and to find funding for it?  

CN: Not at all. Very early on, when we were planning the first edition, you made it clear to me that a long-term perspective was important, and that there would also be a second and also a third edition. What happens afterwards is still not clear. The question was already discernible back then: to what extent do we tie ourselves to an identity, to what extent do we want to step outside of that identity and do entirely different things? That’s the fundamental tension contained within Fiktionsbescheinigung.

At some point, the film series has to become irrelevant, in the sense of strategic essentialism: today it’s important to do Fiktionsbecheinigung to generate visibility for what you’ve been describing. And at some point, hopefully very soon, the subjects and aesthetics that Fiktionsbescheinigung bundles together will have become a regular part of film festival programmes. That’s already actually happening in part, we’re showing Lina Rodriguez’s MIS DOS VOCES in this year’s Forum programme, for example. Rodriguez is a Colombian filmmaker based in Canada, her film is a tender documentary about three women from Colombia and Mexico who emigrated to Canada. 

EA: Fiktionsbescheinigung is itself the result of a long process. At the beginning, you were considering the idea of how racist works from film history should be dealt with. We then moved away from that question pretty quickly. How much have the ideas of the last one and a half, nearly two years left their mark on your personal point of view and the Forum’s approach?  

CN: Since we’ve been working on Fiktionsbescheinigung, I’ve learnt a huge amount. Let’s take the question of racism, for example: it’s already so limiting for people of colour to live in racist structures that having to constantly grapple with them in art too only adds insult to injury, that’s become much clearer to me now. I can also understand the refusal to engage with damaging, insulting works much better today, as I used to see that much more through the prism of censorial overzealousness.

I also look back at my own cinematic socialisation with quiet scepticism. Some of the films that used to mean a lot to me I feel a lot less fondness for today. And there are films that formed part of my cinematic socialisation that I still wouldn’t like to do without, although at the same time I’m not sure how I’d react to them today. I’m a bit scared of rewatching Jean Rouch’s LES MAÎTRES FOUS, because that film was really precious to me, and I just don’t know how Rouch’s ethnographic gaze is going to affect me today. That’s an experiment worth conducting.

Or, to put it more generally: how can I, as a cinephile, as someone who works with film, find a productive position towards the fact that a large part of film history is dulled by racism and sexism? I don’t have a full answer to that question. I hope that people will become more aware of the problem and that a series like Fiktionsbescheinigung can play a part in that.  

EA: I notice that the discussions I’ve had with all of you, with all of our colleagues, hone my senses again and again. We’re not doing Fiktionsbescheinigung so that all white people can feel bad when they go to the cinema, that would be totally inappropriate. It’s not a one-way street, meaning that I, as a person read as Black who is “affected” by these issues, as it were, have also learnt a lot. For me, it’s about collective learning. It goes without saying that there are structures which give certain people more influence and scope than others. At the same time, we still all have to think together in order that something changes. Your answer could also be my own, although I’m not in your position. 

BP: Everything we’ve been talking about is proof of the fact that film is very much alive. Just like old paintings: figures by Rubens, for example, were seen very differently back then than they are now. We see them differently because time is alive. It’s like its own organ.  

Enoka Ayemba is a film curator and film critic focusing on African cinematographies, the Nigerian video industry and anti-colonial movements. He has been a consultant for the Berlinale Forum since 2019.

Biene Pilavci completed her studies at DFFB Berlin in 2012 with ALLEINE TANZEN. In 2013, she made CHRONIK EINER REVOLTE – EIN JAHR ISTANBUL together with Ayla Gottschlich with support from ZDF and ARTE. She is co-founder of the film-political initiative NichtmeinTatort and the film network Neue Deutsche Filmemacher*innen.

Cristina Nord was film editor at the Berlin newspaper “die tageszeitung” for many years. From 2015 to 2019, she was head of the Goethe Institute‘s cultural programme for Southwest Europe. She has been head of the Berlinale Forum since August 2019.


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