Jump directly to the page contents

A hall of residence in a six-storey concrete prefab building. Vertical corridors that lead into the back of the frame. People walk up and down the corridor, snatches of Portuguese can be heard on the soundtrack. A young woman looks out of the window, following a movement outside the frame with her eyes. The young Tungalag Sodnomgombyn is sitting on a sofa and talking about how her parents are still young in her memory. Yet when she goes back to Ulaanbaatar to visit them, they look different and have done for some time now; the human price of living in a foreign country.     

OYOYO (East Germany, 1980) by Chetna Vora shows everyday life for students from the Mongolian People's Republic, Chile, Guinea-Bissau and Cuba at a hall of residence in Berlin-Karlshorst. The Indian filmmaker studied at the Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen der DDR (HFF) in Potsdam-Babelsberg from 1976 onwards. Gautam Bora started studying at the HFF the same year as Chetna Vora. Before that, he had studied art in Guwahati in northern India. In EIN HERBST IM LÄNDCHEN BÄRWALDE (East Germany, 1983), Bora explores the life of a family of farmers in Bärwalde in southern Brandenburg.

Many International Filmmakers Learned Their Trade in East Germany

Chetna Vora und Gautam Bora were by no means the only foreign students at the HFF. Their films are representative of the problems and possibilities that arose when the East German film world came into contact with students from different countries. The total number of international students who came to Potsdam-Babelsberg remains unclear to this day, but a 1964 commemorative publication to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Filmhochschule mentioned 31 graduates at that time. Ilka Brombach, likely the person who best knows the HFF film archive at today’s Filmuniversität Babelsberg, points out that the number of foreign students at the HFF rose in the 1970s, primarily while Peter Ulbrich was vice-chancellor. By 1989, a number in the low three figures can thus be assumed.

“A film that’s uninteresting from one perspective can be a key document when viewed from another.”

The entire spectrum of the film schools’ archives have yet to receive full film historiographical attention. When people look at these archives, it is first and foremost to find the early works of German directors who went on to become famous.  The films made by foreign students have received considerably less scrutiny, whereby film historical attention is not a given, but rather akin to an adoption of sorts. A film that’s uninteresting from one perspective can be a key document when viewed from another.

The Films by Bora and Vora Stand for Different Documentary Approaches

EIN HERBST IM LÄNDCHEN BÄRWALDE begins by capturing the morning atmosphere close to Meinsdorf. The field stretches out to the horizon. A tractor enters the frame in picturesque fashion. “Ländchen Bärwalde is what the inhabitants of this area call their home. Mine is 9000 kilometres away.” Burgeoning director Gautam Bora, who is from northern India, sees the field and the tractor as fulfilling a dream of progressive agricultural production. A form of production which he – as he also says in his commentary – only previously knew from photos. Boras’s film crafts a portrait of East German agriculture using three generations of the Balke family as an example. Bora spends two thirds of the film introducing the members of the family in slightly uninspired fashion: he has the grandparents give an account of the tribulations of their youth, in the taciturn manner fitting for Brandenburg; he grants grandfather Gustav a small triumph over his grandson Bernd when it comes to ploughing the field with a hand plough; he goes on to focus his attention on the grandson’s generation. The 19-year-old Bernd prefers to drive the tractor, just like his older brother Detlef. The Balkes are a family of mechanisers, the professional embodiment of the industrialisation of East German agriculture. As an eager mechaniser par excellence, older grandchild Detlef is given the role of the hero in the film. Bora compares the developments in East German agriculture with the everyday realities for Indian farmers. This comparison presents industrialised agriculture as a form of progress, even though its environmental consequences were already visible when the film was being made.

EIN HERBST IM LÄNDCHEN BÄRWALDE and Chetna Vora’s OYOYO are two very different films. While Vora feels her way towards the living conditions of the students at the hall of residence, the roles allocated by the dichotomic understanding of progress are fixed from the outset for Bora. Serving as an examination piece during her studies, Chetna Vora’s film has a strict structure. The conversations take place in the rooms, separated by scenes in the corridor, as if the corridor were a way of connecting the students, their life paths and perspectives and placing them in relationship to one another. Vora’s film narrates just as much with images as it does with the content of the conversations. This faith in images might have had something to do with the fact that Vora had Ulrich Weiß, one of DEFA’s most visually adept directors, by her side as a dramatic advisor. What was likely just as important is that she was able to trust in her cinematographer. The film was shot by Vora’s husband Lars Barthel, the father of her daughter, who would have been three years old at the time.

“The students’ experiences in East Germany are not free from frictions in OYOYO, while the German Democratic Republic functions as a development ideal in EIN HERBST IM LÄNDCHEN BÄRWALDE.”

The students’ conversations in OYOYO come across as spontaneous, whether the ones among themselves or the ones they have with the director. Vora only seldom uses questions to direct the course of the conversation. That’s why one intervention she makes around two thirds into the film stands out. The young Carmen Mara Barbosa e Sá talks about her family history in response to Vora’s questions. When the young woman from Bissau wonders what else to say, she starts talking about East Germany. Vora interrupts her in voiceover and asks her to talk about her country of origin instead.

East Germany and its white inhabitants remain invisible in OYOYO. Encounters with them are only briefly addressed in two episodes narrated by Tungalag Sodnomgombyn. At one point, she speaks with her friends about the cost effectiveness of material consumption. When her friends cast doubt on the very concept, she makes reference to a conversation with “that impossible man”, seemingly a lecturer. Later she speaks with Chetna Vora about the differences in how time is grasped in Mongolia and East Germany and the great distress that people in Germany feel when they don’t manage to fulfil their self-imposed everyday plans. The students’ experiences in East Germany are not free from frictions in OYOYO, while the German Democratic Republic functions as a development ideal in EIN HERBST IM LÄNDCHEN BÄRWALDE. The latter image is likely to have flattered those responsible for (film) policy.

The Real Existing Patriarchy within a Farming Family

After creating a routine multi-generational portrait, Bora’s film unexpectedly picks up speed in its final third. A series of everyday situations bring the gender relations within the family to the fore in miniature, which are as conservative as what one would otherwise connect with the CDU-induced fug of 1980s West Germany. The starting point here is a short scene in which mother Gertrud Balke is unable to keep it in any more: “When I come home, my husband is already gone, he’s gone out by then. If we came home from work at the same time, then I’d be able to tie him down and he wouldn’t be able to go out so often.” Father Günter can only grin with embarrassment. Bora returns to the theme again when it comes to the post-work downtime that only Father Günter actually has. While he watches television on the sofa, he also sees his wife doing the washing up and making sandwiches for the next day.

The shift in theme from the structure of agriculture in East Germany to the lived reality of real, existing patriarchy in Ein Herbst im Ländchen Bärwalde is noticeable because it leaves the structure of the film behind it. It speaks for Bora’s filmmaking feel that he understands the power of the scenes in which Gertrud Balke expresses open criticism of the behaviour of her husband and son. With the East German film landscape usually taking its bearings from dramatic structure, it would also seem to speak against the concept of the film that the realities of family life are only able find a place within it when that concept is broken with.

Vora’s Interest in Everyday Reality Brought Her into Conflict with the Socialist State

For its part, Oyoyo is carried by the interplay between formal structure, the shifts between the rooms and the corridor, and the thematic parenthesis of internationalism. Music is heard three times in Vora’s film. The first time is when students from Guinea-Bissau are sitting together in one of the rooms in the hall of residence. Their chatting in Portuguese initially covers the sound of the music, but then a song in Cabo Verdean Creole unfolds. As part of his research on the film, Vinit Agarwal identified the song with the help of militant historian Sónia Vaz Borges, and translated it into English.   “I went to São Tomé (and Príncipe) they told me to say ‘Yes, Sir’ / I went to Lisbon they told me to say ‘Yes, Sir’” is the refrain of “Forti Trabadja P’alguém” [So Much of Working for Other People]. The song is sung again almost directly afterwards by a group of students in the corridor.

Shortly before the end of the film, a group of Chilean students sit together and listen to a record. It is the B-side of the debut album by Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez, he sings, translated into English: “Dream of the greatness of the day / of what I was and what I am / of this morning, my soul / That’s what I dreamt of today”. Tungalag Sodnomgombyn sits on the sofa and listens to the song, seemingly the only person in the room who can’t speak Spanish. One of the Chileans will have teach her all of this, she says and laughs. The fight for liberation is conveyed in amiable fashion in Chetna Vora’s film.

“Wherever you went, everyday socialism disintegrated around you”, says Lars Barthel in his film Mein Tod ist nicht dein Tod (Germany 2006), in which he traces out his relationship with Chetna Vora, who died in 1987. Two years after Oyoyo, Vora’s interest in everyday reality brought her into conflict with the East German film landscape. Her graduation film Frauen in Berlin (East Germany 1982) was confiscated and not allowed to be screened. Shortly afterwards, Vora moved from East Germany to India with Barthel and their daughter. Gautam Bora made his first feature Wosobipo (The Cuckoo's Call) in 1990 upon his own return to India, which screened at the Berlinale Forum the following year. His films are regarded as having made an important contribution to the creation of a Northern Indian Cinema.

Between A Liberated Gaze and the Fulfilment of Political Expectations

In her 2018 article, Ilka Brombach examines the films made by foreign students to establish that they “often conformed with official political expectations.” Their training fulfilled, Brombach continues, “an important function in East German foreign policy first and foremost: by training foreign specialists and leaders, academic and cultural exchange with the socialist ‘brother countries’ was intensified. It also formed part of the country’s engagement in the so-called Third World.”

When looking at several films from the 1960s, however, the question arises whether their makers really did align themselves with political expectations or whether contact with the experiences of the people from countries in which liberation movements were active left its mark on the political image of these countries in East Germany. In 1962, Algerian directing student Mohand Ali Yahia adapted Henri Alleg’s famous autobiographical book “La question” for his graduation film. Among other things, Alleg recalls his torture by the French colonial forces during the Algerian War of Independence. In Die Frage (East Germany 1962), Mohand Ali Yahia finds piercingly abstract images to express the brutality of the colonial forces. Kais al-Zubaidi started studying at the HFF in 1962. His first camera exercise Ausflug (East Germany 1966) complains of the terror wreaked by the Baath party, which ruled Iraq at the time. In the same year, al-Zubaidi edited Olingo (East Germany 1966), a film by his fellow student Emile Itolo about an African student looking for a flat who is rejected again and again for obviously racist reasons. A short sequence at the start of the film locates it in West Berlin and thus fulfils ideological expectations by including a formal critique of West Germany. The rest of the film remains more vague in relationship to where the plot is set, however, which was probably not unintentional.

“In a country that had walled itself in, the international students brought a little bit of the big wide world outside to East Germany. Their films belong to some of the most impressive works created about the liberation movements of the 1960s to 1980s.”

A good ten years later, Hashim Said’s ZWEI AUS SOWETO (East Germany 1978) creates a portrait of two adolescents who fled to East Germany after taking part in protests against the Bantu training offered by the South African apartheid state. Said’s film combines footage of the two adolescents at their hall of residence in Altenburg, Thuringia, where they are studying at the Agricultural Engineering School for Tropical Agriculture, with interview sequences and shots of the protests in South Africa.

Brombach points out that the students at the film school contributed to “an atmosphere of internationality”. In a country that had walled itself in, the international students brought a little bit of the big wide world outside to East Germany. Their films belong to some of the most impressive works created about the liberation movements of the 1960s to the 1980s. Brombach’s observation that these films fulfilled “official political expectations” also has to do with the fact that East Germany officially showed solidarity with the various liberation movements of the time in formal terms at least. In addition, anyone from “socialist brother countries” or from politically desirable organisations like the respective Communist parties or liberation movements were given the opportunity to study in Babelsberg if they were interested in doing so.

Much of the International Filmmaking Carried Out at the HFF Remains Undiscovered

After his studies, Gautam Bora made use of his training in Babelsberg to depict everyday realities back in India that had previously been given little room in Indian cinema. On the other hand, the political forces governing East German film production felt challenged by Chetna Vora’s view of East Germany. The violent reaction to Vora’s graduation film Frauen in Berlin (East Germany 1982) throws up the question of whether the loyalty to the party line that Brombach observes in the films made by international students at the HFF was not also a way of fulfilling the paternalistic expectation of gratitude towards East German cultural bureaucracy.

Chetna Vora’s films have received attention in the last years thanks to research carried out by Vinit Agarwal, Tobias Hering, Anna Stainton and others, although recognition has come late. Film historians like Madeleine Bernstorff and Irit Neidhardt have carried out research on several of the HFF’s foreign students. Yet this recognition can’t make amends for the destruction wrought by ideological narrow-mindedness. Frauen in Berlin has only survived as a video made by Chetna Vora before the film was confiscated, and the longer version of Oyoyo that Agarwal writes about has still yet to be publicly rediscovered, to say nothing of the works of all the other filmmakers who studied in Babelsberg and have yet to be discovered to this day.

Fabian Tietke is a film historian, curator and freelance author. His texts about cinema are published in the German newspapers "die tageszeitung" and "Der Tagesspiegel", amongst others.

Translated from the German by James Lattimer


Funded by:

  • Logo Minister of State for Culture and the Media
  • Logo des Programms NeuStart Kultur