Reel life What's Up Doc?

The documentaries presented at Leipzig’s film festival focused on the Balkans, freedom and social justice. This year it showed adventurous animation too.
The films portrayed people facing tough questions, here in Spartacus & Cassandra.

There are teenagers from Tunisia baling hay, driving and singing, frustrated at their future prospects.

A Serbian lawyer confronts his troubled past of his clients and his own.

Two lovers in Abkhazia, struggling day by day in a Russian-occupied part of Georgia.

These were scenes from some of the prize-winning movies shown at the Leipzig film festival that gave a glimpse of a side of life rarely seen.

This year, the festival focused on the Balkans. One documentary showed Bosnian people who had been imprisoned in concentration camps returning to live in the region, asking if it is possible to build a future without confronting the past.

A short historic film showed the deliberations of workers leaving Croatia for Germany in the 1960s. And one offbeat film showed elderly musicians in a rural area practicing playing Serbian music – on leaves.

The films shown at the festival this year went beyond regional and political issues, said Grit Lemke, the director of the film program.

The films were art works, radical subjective views of political topics, whether in Kiev or in Syria. Grit Lemke, Festival Film Program Director

“They were art works, radical subjective views of political topics, whether in Kiev or in Syria.”

She said that technology, and the availability of lighter digital cameras had certainly influenced the choice of topics. “But that’s not the main reason. I think artists who dealt with different topics in the past are now looking at these political issues.”

At Leipzig’s festival, films have to go beyond throwing light on political and regional issues. “We can see all that in the Internet and on social media,” she said. “We select films that ask bigger questions beyond the topic, about the price people are prepared to pay for resistance, for example.”

The movies went beyond the Balkans to the Arab Spring to Russia and Ukraine exploring questions of freedom and oppression.


Public workers, changing times in the Congo.


Laura Poitras won a prize, the "Leipzig Ring", for “Citizenfour,” her film about Edward Snowden and the revelations about spying by the NSA in the United States. To celebrate its German premiere, Mr. Snowden sent a short video message recognizing the importance of people’s actions in fall 1989 in Leipzig. He said, “These events remind us that the wall and the GDR were not brought down by bombs and weapons or violence but though regular people in the streets and squares.”

Festival-goers also saw men and women preparing food for the Ukrainian protestors in as fires raged and fighting went on, in “Maidan.” They watched a Congolese fireman trying to put out a fire with old equipment, in “Elephant’s dream.” They saw the lives of elderly Cubans watching the street in “Balcony Tales.”

Many films addressed the difficulties faced by young people. “Spartacus & Cassandra” showed young Roma children struggling over whether to settle with foster parents and go to school or follow their parents around Europe. In “The Predicate and the Poppy,” teachers in an inner-city school in Paris try to teach grammar but are angered by the conditions the children face.


Roma children explore what home means.


Gritty and lively topics were also told through animation. Sigme Baumane introduced animated members of her Latvian family who shrink and grow like mushrooms in a nightmare fairytale of their lives from partisan war through Soviet medicine.

Leipzig is Germany’s oldest documentary festival and has shown animation films and documentaries since its inception in 1955. “They aren’t such different genres. They are both artistic ways of reflecting reality. And more and more, documentary makers are using animation in films, and vice versa,” Ms. Lemke said.

Pointing to the rare sunshine outside, director Ms. Baumane scolded the audience who packed the cinema to see her film. “Go out and play – why aren’t you drinking beer in the park?” she said.

But the audience stayed put. There was just too much to see.


Allison Williams is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition based in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]