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Tuesday, 7/2/2019

Variety is the Spice of Life

Diversity at FILMFEST MÜNCHEN

Variety is the Spice of Life

Life is colorful ... and brutal: KNIFE + HEART

Some 7.6 billion people now live on earth. And even though the exact numbers are hard to predict, it's evident that the population will grow quite a bit more. It's just as evident that all these people can't be absolutely equal. Some differences can be seen at first glance, while others are more hidden, having to do with personal convictions or tastes. Showing this diversity is an important and exciting task for filmmakers from around the world. The FILMFEST MÜNCHEN program makes this apparent by taking up this subject in its own diverse way — from serious to comical, from documentary to totally crazy.

KNIFE + HEART is one of those films that celebrate life out there in their very own way. In this stylishly surreal retro-thriller set in the late 1970s, Vanessa Paradis plays a lesbian producer of gay porn films who is in agony after a break-up. As if that weren't bad enough, a mysterious killer is targeting one member of her crew after another. Anne, however, makes the best of the situation and starts including the murders in her own porn films — with bizarre results.

GOLDEN YOUTH also offers French celebrities in an LGBTQ milieu and plenty of 1970s atmosphere. Here, Isabelle Huppert and Melvil Poupaud are a wealthy and free-thinking couple who invite an aspiring artist and his girlfriend over. After all, they appreciate beauty — artistic as well as human beauty. Their fancy clothing, their lavish amenities, and not least their enjoyment of voyeuristic games make this drama a feast for the eyes.

Less luxurious, but no less enticing, are the vistas on the Greek island of Tinos. David and his wife Nina are on vacation here in REST IN GREECE, in search of inspiration and a bit of excitement. One day, they find both when Margarita, whose father owns the house they're staying in, shows up. The one night she wants to stay for soon turns into more, as she and the couple enjoy each other's company. This creates tension in more than one sense of the word.

There's also tension in the impoverished Siberian village in which Egor and Natalia live. Egor is deathly ill; not even an old Inuk medicine woman can help him. But perhaps there's another way to cheat death. Inspired by an old legend, Egor takes on the guise of a woman, complete with high heels and lipstick. THE MAN WHO SURPRISED EVERYONE is a clever and emotional reflection upon tolerance and the way we deal with those who are different.

GOLDEN YOUTH, REST IN GREECE and ANGELO

Tolerance is also something the members of the Satanic Temple are fighting for. Unlike what one might expect, it's not about summoning demonic spirits. Rather, the group campaigns for the separation of church and state as well as for religious diversity. The documentary HAIL SATAN? follows founder Lucien Greaves to various appearances and uses a lot of humor to demonstrate why it's so important to campaign for diversity in this area as well.

In the small Albanian village in A SHELTER AMONG THE CLOUDS, people are already a bit further along. Christians and Muslims live together in peace; pretty much anyone is welcome in the family of Besnik, the shepherd. One day, however, the villagers discover an old painting of a saint and realize that their mosque was once a church! Conflicts supposedly settled long ago return to the forefront. The path to equality is difficult and fraught with setbacks.

The films in the section "A Peculiar Vantage" have a lot to say about that. A program of films curated by Arthur Jafa gives insight into the development of black cinema. Jafa's work clearly focuses on African-American history, which from its beginning was characterized by oppression. But with his tireless campaign for recognition, he is at the same time fighting for all those who are marginalized — even if it's on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. His selection enables us to once again raise awareness of the milestones of recent decades, from the 1930s to the present.

ANGELO also looks back to the past. This ten-year-old boy is kidnapped and brought to Europe in the early 18th century as a slave. Now he is to be introduced to the high society. His dark skin gives him an exotic, decorative quality, after all. This story is set long ago and yet it has a bitter topicality, as it depicts the crimes of colonialism, whose excesses are still seen and felt in the present day.

The documentary WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD'S ON FIRE? illustrates the long-term effects of colonialism when it asks what it means to be an African-American in the United States today. Director Roberto Minervini originally intended this film to be a survey of the music of Louisiana in the 1930s. Instead, it turned into a kaleidoscope of impressions and movements. The poignant stories of individuals have a place in this film just as much as those of political activists who conjure up the spirit of the Black Panthers of old.

HUGH HEFNER'S AFTER DARK: SPEAKING OUT IN AMERICA and director Brigitte Berman

Hugh Hefner was a much different — and even an unexpected — champion of equality for black Americans. Known mostly for Playboy and for his licentious reveling, Hefner became a campaigner for representation in the media in the 1950s and ’60s. HUGH HEFNER'S AFTER DARK: SPEAKING OUT IN AMERICA presents two TV shows made by the controversial hedonist in which black artists were able to appear in complete equality with their white colleagues — a novelty at the time.

What can we learn from history? What do we have to do to make greater diversity possible? We spoke with Brigitte Berman, director of the documentary, and asked her about the lasting effect of Hugh Hefner's efforts as well as about developments in current affairs.

In 2009 you did a documentary feature on Hugh Hefner. Why did you return to this topic so many years later?

When my late husband and producer, Victor Solnicki and I would show our first Hefner film, we noticed that the audiences and especially young people were intrigued by the few clips of Hefner’s early TV shows and they wanted to see more. It was Victor’s idea to approach Hefner and ask whether he might give us access to these long-ago shows. After reading our treatment and meeting with us, Hefner agreed and we started the long journey - six years - of researching and producing this film. Sadly, neither Victor Solnicki nor Mr. Hefner are around to see it.

Hugh Hefner has always been a controversial and contradictory man. How would you describe him?

Hugh Hefner was a very complex man. He is known for his Playboy reputation. But regrettably he’s not known for his contributions to society, which include freedom of speech, challenging restrictive social norms and promoting civil rights and human rights. Our film is encouraging audiences to see Mr. Hefner in a fuller perspective instead of a one-dimensional presentation. Our film shines a spotlight on a part of Hefner’s personhood that most people are completely unaware of and it shows a more complete picture of the full person.

In HUGH HEFNER’S AFTER DARK: SPEAKING OUT IN AMERICA you focus on his two TV productions from the 50s and 60s. Why are they still relevant in your opinion?

Many of the issues that were discussed at great length on these shows are still relevant today – issues like civil rights, human rights, the environment, freedom of speech. More than fifty years later, these issues are still in the headlines – especially in America. The challenges today run alarmingly parallel to the challenges Hefner was addressing in the late 50s and 60s and civil rights issues are still problematic. What the film points out is that we need to be ever vigilant and not take any gains for granted, for fear of slippage back to where you do not want to be. And we still have a long way to go to reach full equality of opportunity, and equality of respect. The Black Lives Matter movement confirms this. Black activists like Jim Brown, who is featured in our film, states that to be black in America today can still be a very debilitating experience, in spite of the civil rights break throughs.

When and how did you become aware of these TV shows?

Victor Solnicki and I became aware of these shows while researching our earlier documentary – “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel”. Victor had seen some of the shows when he was younger, but I was not aware of them at all and to me the shows were a big surprise. I loved the music and the singers and the musicians featured on the shows and the fact that civil rights was featured so strongly in many of the shows. Victor loved the political nature of the shows and the fact that Mr. Hefner took great risks in the way he presented his shows.

Do you think that shows like these would still work today? Who could host it?

Absolutely they could work today. Perhaps ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ in its outspokenness comes pretty close, as does John Oliver’s “Last week tonight”.  Both hosts are very smart, very political and highly outspoken. But neither of these two contemporary shows features musical numbers – a factor that would raise the production budget enormously. Personally I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a show where the host moves freely about the studio/room and interacts with his guests as informally as did Mr. Hefner.  Perhaps it’s easier to be seated on chairs or behind a desk. Unfortunately, with this staged and sterile approach the focus remains on the host, and guests rotate on and off stage/camera most often as accessories for the host. Hefner’s shows were not about him nor centred around him. “Playboy’s Penthouse” and “Playboy After Dark” were centred on the issues of the day and the outspoken performers willing to be themselves and risk much to speak out against injustice, including the censorship of free speech on mainstream American TV at that time.

While the music industry always had a fair share of black stars the film industry seemed to struggle in that regard. There’s no equivalent to Beyoncé or Rihanna. Can you think of a reason?

Unfortunately, for many years, Hollywood and the TV studios were dominated by the white majority and were overwhelmingly “white-washed” and it was difficult to break through that. Even for women to break through has taken a long time. But even though black singers and musicians have made great inroads on the performance side and the influence of black artists on music is enormous, yet the music industry itself is still peopled by a white majority and there exists a power disparity between whites and blacks in the music industry. African Americans make up approximately 15% of the total population however, the percentage of leaders, owners and decision-makers in the music industry remains significantly below that. Things are changing but they are not changing as fast as they should.

Representation of minorities has been a huge issue during the past few years, see the BLACK PANTHER phenomenon or CRAZY RICH ASIANS to a lesser extent. Why weren’t Hefner’s shows more influential in that regard? Why did it take that long?

One main reason why Mr. Hefner produced these shows was that things were happening in the United States that he felt were un-democratic and anti-American, like the House Un American Activities Committee, censorship of free speech, racial prejudice, the Vietnam War, etc. And he wanted to give activists a platform to “speak out” about these and other issues. And he mixed the serious with musical performances that often underlined the issues of the times. Unfortunately, “Playboy’s Penthouse” existed for one season only in the late 50s and “Playboy After Dark” for two seasons in the late 60s. I think that America at the time when Hefner’s shows were aired, was not yet ready to embrace the representation of minorities. And Hefner’s shows, while they were popular with the audiences who saw them, were not part of the mainstream. Hefner’s shows were syndicated and were not seen in every American city, especially not in the southern United States where the shows were boycotted and sponsors discouraged from supporting the programs. Hefner paid for these programs personally. At that time it was not the popular thing to do on TV, to give voice to so many issues and allow activists to speak at such great length – eg, Joan Baez speaking against the Vietnam War.

In your opinion will we ever get to the point that minorities are duly represented in media?

I certainly hope so however humanity in itself is not perfect. Therefore all human cultures and groups have their strengths and limitations. If we can harness the good inherent in each minority group and add this to the prevailing culture, humanity will be all the better for it. Artistic talent is just one dimension of this growth. Unfortunately, with the rise of populism around the world, this may also affect the due representation of minorities in the media. Where visibly different “illegal immigrants” are seen as intruders with little of a positive nature to offer the countries being invaded, populism can easily become dominated by xenophobic fears aimed at those who are visibly different.

Representation is only one part to further awareness of inequalities. What else can be done?

Representation is an important first step. But the ultimate solution is to address the causes and consequences of inequalities directly. It is important to see humanity as a family (that can ultimately survive on this planet only through collaboration) rather than as competing factions defining winners and losers. It is important to engage in honest dialogue to address inequalities rather than pretend that they no longer exist because we have simply become more sophisticated in our discrimination. The importance of empathy and understanding is paramount. A civil society requires ongoing honest dialogue that respects the personhood of each individual. Without this honest dialogue, civility is only a veneer used to conceal an ingrained culture of inequality and injustice. Hefner’s vision was to speak out in America and to activate this honest dialogue.

While the situation of minorities improves in some ways in others it seems to get worse. As a whole how would you rate the development?

Human progress is not always linear. Sometimes a bold step forward is met with a step to the side or even backward. Minorities in civil societies have acquired rights today that were unheard of in the 50’s and 60s. However, this progress can be thwarted by reactionary populist sentiments levied against immigration, porous national borders, visible minorities stealing jobs away from native citizens, etc. In recent times, populist movements have promoted ultra conservative law and order governments often attacking the principles of liberal democracy because they are seen as responsible for all populist fears. My rating is that the progress made is significant and needs to be protected and built upon, especially in our challenging times. My personal assessment is that we are still not where we need to be. Many of Hefner’s concerns require contemporary treatment. Our present reality is simply not sustainable. Sustainability ultimately requires social justice. Until minorities are respected, this social justice will remain elusive. Simply put, the desperate hordes of refugees seeking to break through existing national borders have one thing in common. They are fleeing from untenable injustice in their own homelands. To a less desperate extent, those facing inequality and discrimination in our own societies will continue to seek just treatment and equality of opportunity.

What is your next project?

I am working on an Australian/Canadian co-production about Soul Music. As well, I have a new documentary in the works about a ballet dancer/singer/song-writer/costume designer and musical theater performer, and the creative genius behind his art.