Berlin, December 2009: Highlights 2

December 15, 2009 at 1:39 am

The conference for which I had been invited was organized by the Institute for Cultural Studies and took place at Humbold University’s Graduate School at Luisenstrasse in Berlin (pictured), a building next door to the ugly massive of the Charite hospital.

Yet another event dedicated to ‘memory work’ and predominantly focused on the Third Reich period with little references to later developments or other strands of thinking, Whichever Stone You Lift offered quality scholarship of the ‘deja vu’ variety. The event concluded a month-long extremely interesting programme of screenings at the cinema of Hackesche Hofe which featured films that I would very much like to see in wider distribution, from the post-war last Polish Yiddish-language production, Unzere Kinder/Our Children (1948), to Katryn Seybold and Melanie Spitta’s seminal documentary on the persecution of Romanies, Das falsche Wort/The False Word (1987).

The film programme can be viewed here while the programme of the symposium is available at the site of RitesInstitute in Vienna, the owners of which were involved in moderating the panel I took part in. It was a conference like most other events I have attended in Germany, a European model to which I developed an allergy some time ago: speakers have about an hour at their disposal and present lengthy (and often monotonously delivered) papers that run for 40-50 at a time; there is little eye contact with the audience, and very few visual stimuli to keep the attention. This is then followed by a question period which normally runs over the time slot as the moderators believe it is impolite to pressure the speakers for shortness. Having grown used to the 20 min maximum paper format that is the norm in the Anglo-Saxon world (and with the ubiquitous paper note reminders ’5 min’, ’2 min’ or ‘stop now’ that the moderators show to the speakers as they go), I really could not help it but feel challenged by the length of presentations. A paper on black actors in the third Reich was presented by Viennese (and now London, Ontario) researcher Tobias Nagl. It was well illustrated and argued (even if it also run for unbearably long time in my view), and was thus the highlight of the event for me.

The discussion of our panel, dedicated to matters of representing Romani persecution in the context of popular culture, evolved around the need of a specific and more considerate history framework that should be applied to understanding Roma history, one that differs from the historical milestones linked to other groups. Once again, Roma issues resurfaced for consideration as related to other aspects of historical memory, the Jewish Holocaust in his case. Yet while the history of Roma and Jews overlap in the context of this particular historical experience, there are many aspects of memory and remembrance related to Romanies that cannot be exhausted only by such cross-referencing, which inevitably limits the multidimensionality of Romani memory. To me, this was one of the important messages that emerged from the debate.

It was great to be in the company of two extremely beautiful women for this panel. One was Katrin Seybold (pictured above), the veteran documentary filmmaker, who has worked with Sinteza Melanie Spitta over the years and has made a number of films that feature the plight of Roma and Sinti in Germany, was one of the guests.

The other one, Timea Junghaus (left), a Romni from Hungary, who works with the rich but still largely unknown material created by Romani artists across Europe. She spoke of her highly original curating work and of the various contexts that dominate curatorial practices and that, for a variety of reasons, routinely shut the work of Romani artists away from the public eye.

Timea is telling me that in her view the best film about the Romani experience is the puppet animation by Finnish director Katariina Lillqvist, a pupil of Jiri Trnka’s, which I am looking forward to seeing (here is a still from one of her animations).

The panel was moderated by Viennese filmmaker and curator Friedemann Derschmidt, who, alongside his partner, is involved mainly in curating film programmes linked to cultural exchanges with Israel and in maintaining an interesting web-site, in part entitled Israelstine.

© Dina Iordanova
15 December 2009