DAM review of the Munich Disability Film Festival in 1995
Internationales Kurzfilmfestival ,,Wie wir leben''
The principal behind the 1st International Short Film Festival around disability, titled Wie wir leben (The way we live) and held in Munchen last November, is beautifully summed up by Fredi Saal when he said that 'I am so bold as to expect my environment to accept me as I am'. The problem with the festival is also beautifully summed by Fredi Saal being labelled as a spastic in the official programme on the front of which his words appeared. What one gathered from the entire festival was the divide between Britain and the rest of Europe in disability consciousness (something which even surprised me). In Britain we would go one step further than Fredi Saal and be bold enough to expect our environment to adapt to us so that we can be who we are rather than who society wants us to be.
Many of the films chosen for the final selection that the public and jury saw were in fact television programmes that tended to inspirational in style and content and, as such, tended not to fit the criteria of being a 'film festival' material. Those that were cinematic or filmically creative were in the minority, which made the selection process much simpler that would have been expected. The jury was split in the end over who should win: a Polish film, a German film or an American film. What was agreed, unanimously, was that the special UNESCO prize should go to a English film: A is for Autism, an animation film by Tim Webb (produced and already screened by Channel Four). It didn't exploit its subjects but seemed to be a genuine collaboration between the able-bodied producers and the creative zest of those with autism that appeared in it. Also it had a positive aspect of autism that is rarely shown within a coherent context and style, along with a sense of humour.
The state of Bavaria had agreed to give a prize also and as there had been so many televisual video films the jury felt that at least one prize should go to one of that style; if for no other reason than the audience seemed to really enjoy them. Mommy Has A Crown, an Israeli video production directed by Debbie Jivan about an able-bodied man living, loving and having a child with a severely disabled woman: very much a heart warming and inspirational film which some of the jury enjoyed the irony of giving the Bavarian prize to a production from Israel.
The final three winners, for the main 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes, caused great discussion in the jury and a high degree of consternation by the audience in the final decisions. The jury decided that an American documentary film about a stand-up-comic (who could not stand up!) should get second prize. It, again, seemed to be a collaboration between the maker and the subject with a genuine affection between the comic and the documentary film maker (who had been friends for years before hand). Fred, directed by Ron Ward and about Fred Burns, whose impairment was Spina Bifida (rarely shown in any media), was not only creative and fairly original in style and content but was highly amusing and affirmative of the right to live life as one chooses: Fred Burns loved his cigarettes, drink and women like his driving: hard, fast and dangerous. Lets hope it gets picked up by a broadcaster here.
1st and 3rd, somewhat illogically, was between the Polish film: Scenes From The Life of a Man; and a German film: ... Be Aware of Trudchen Luescher. The jury was split between its German members and its non-German members (an American: Stephen Dwoskin; a Russian: Nadia Khromchenko, of UNESCO; and an Englishman). The German members of the jury (a disabled actor and organiser of the festival: Peter Radtke; an able-bodied film critic: Michael Althen; and the film director Michael Verhoeven) wanted the Polish film to win whereas as the foreigners wanted the German film. Though I think that there was a degree of embarrassment that a German film might win a German film festival the disagreement did show a divide in attitudes of jury members. The Polish film was about a man with no arms who swims, skis, urinates and draws and was shot in the most beautiful of aesthetics but was, in my view, deeply exploitative of the subject and was made in such a way that it objectified the subject (i.e. the disabled character) to such a degree that it would have looked as beautiful had its central character been a car or a computer. The non-German jurors won out and managed to persuade the Germans that this should go third and not first, mainly on the grounds that they did not want it to get anything as it was in the long run, deeply suspect in its depiction of disability as they saw it and was a case of style over content.
So the winner, with a prize of 10,000 marks (£4,000) was ... Be Aware of Trudchen Luescher; the tale of an elderly woman with a severe visual impairment, sitting alone and lonely in her rented flat, lamenting, despising and longing for a call from a neighbour: Mrs Grul. In the film, to fill time, Trudchen Luescher cleans, listens to the television and stares out of the window. Cinematically I found it to be the most original and engaging of the films and should clearly have been the winner. Its originality and confrontation of the subject and character was both refreshing and moving. It was a hard film - the write up in Disability Now called it dour and boring - but beneath a superficial reading it was rich in detail, comment and reality. Some said it painted a negative image of visual impairment and old age, I would counter that it revealed that which disabled people have tried to hide at their own expense, that loneliness and isolation are the predominant reality of disability as that is how so many of us are forced to live. Loneliness and isolation are not inevitable conclusions of disability but they are when it is lived in a society that despises and isolates it: many of us. But, and this was the beauty of the winning film, no matter how much society is the cause and instigator of that isolation and loneliness and pain, we each experience it, in the main, as individuals - in our own heads - not as social collective. the collective is how we challenge it, not how we experience on our own. ... Be Aware of Trudchen Luesher was by far the best film in the festival, and though a difficult film, it made the festival well worth the trip on its own.
One final mention must be made of a film that the jury awarded a special mention: A Loophole For Euthanasia, a German/Dutch production by Heidi and Bernd Umbreit and the film in which Fredi Saal appears. Though it was neither cinematically original nor televisually stunning the jury, at least its disabled members, felt it deserved a wider audience purely on the basis that it raised the issue of the long shadow of euthanasia that has stated to loom long and large over all of us disabled people of the world. The film connected current euthanasia thought with that perpetrated against us by the Nazis and as such placed, in many of the jurors opinion, the current realities of euthanasia thought in their proper context: the fascist tendencies of the medical profession and the obsessional desire for order, control and normality (what ever that is).
The festival had its problems: not enough films by disabled people, a little too much inspirational stuff, a selection process dominated by able-bodied people with a desire to please able-bodied people and a degree of jury mistreatment. But, Trudchen Luscher waiting for Mrs Grul made it all worthwhile.