What is the future of German cinema? Conversations with filmmakers Thuy Trang Nguyen and Elliot Blue

Film critic Jess Sweetman speaks to two emerging filmmakers, Thuy Trang Nguyen and Elliot Blue, about their views on the future of film in Germany.

A post for Omnified by Jess Sweetman

The evening was Berlin to me in a nutshell – dinner and a viewing of the documentary “The Artist and the Pervert” followed by a Q&A session about BDSM relationships, all in the name of Berlin Feminist Film Week.

BFFW has been running since 2014 with an ethos to “increase visibility for all femtastic filmmakers out there and highlight films with interesting, complex female characters and films which challenge existing gender norms.” This year their ethos was firmly on display, as evidenced by the packed screenings of films, including “The Artist and the Pervert” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”

The festival included a short film program themed around “Heimat,” the German concept of home, which dealt with issues of identity, nationality and homeland. Among the program were works by filmmakers Elliot Blue and Thuy Trang Nguyen.

I spoke with each of them to find out more about their blossoming film careers, the state of German cinema as they see it, and what it means to be a German filmmaker.

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THUY TRANG NGUYEN is not a newcomer to cinema, having worked for a short time in casting and in the German film industry. Nguyen directed the short film “ROAN” as part of her third year film project at internationale filmschule köln. “ROAN” won the audience award at the 2019 Berlin Feminist Film Festival. The gentle and celebratory documentary centers around Nguyen’s relationship with her grandmother, after whom the film is named, and the “love and admiration that we have for each other.”

The film invites the audience into Roan’s apartment in Reinickendorf, a space where the filmmaker explains: “we can both exist without being questioned.” Nguyen explains that her grandmother “helped me to find a sense of orientation as a human being and as someone who lives in-between two cultures. Because I am too German to be Vietnamese and too Vietnamese to be German.”

What got you started in making films and how were your initial experiences?

When my father introduced me to his VHS’ of Hong Kong movies from the 1980s, I could not be stopped. I loved those movies so much that I reenacted them in front of the TV. A couple of years later my family and I moved to the outskirts of Berlin, it was a predominantly white neighborhood and my family were the only
people of color back then – we even experienced minor racist incidents’. But for the rest of the time, we were invisible. Going to school I had trouble fitting in anywhere.

I really wanted to make some friends so initially I staged myself. I performed different versions of myself in front of the camera. It did not take long until I
found some friends who wanted to join me. High school was an odyssey of self-exploration for me, where filmmaking was my tool to cope and make sense of the weird feelings that I felt. Now I see films as a powerful tool to empower, connect, and represent marginalized people by telling their and our stories.

What have the reactions been to the film so far?

A lot of people came up to me and told me they had tears in their eyes. That is the greatest honor for me, really. It is a very rewarding feeling knowing that people
relate to a story told by two Vietnamese women. But some people could not relate at all because of that. I do not mind that at all. During post production I was warned that the German audiences would not understand the film if I kept doing it my way – if I did not explain my culture to the German viewers, or if I did not translate for the white gaze. I remained stubborn and told the story the way it was supposed to be told. The ones who were touched the most were people with migrant backgrounds. That is when I realized how powerful visibility is.

What’s next for you?

ROAN is the first part of a trilogy about the Vietnamese Diaspora in Germany. My next feature film will be about the north/south partition of the Vietnamese community along the east/west border of Berlin. Historically, Germany and Vietnam are tightly interconnected as both countries used to be partitioned into a socialist and capitalist state. For the Vietnamese community, the conflict between communist and capitalist goes on – even 30 years after the fall of the wall. There are no movies that adequately represent this history and the experience of my family and many other Vietnamese German people.

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ELLIOT BLUE’S short film “Home?” is a musing on identity, part told through animation, documentary, and poetry. “Home?” follows the protagonist from isolation in a rural landscape, lost among flowers and frozen streams to finding themselves through their chosen family in Berlin. Along the way the film confronts Germany’s colonial past.

Home ? (Intro) from Elliot Blue on Vimeo.

 

“I didn’t grow up in this country but I grew up in a very similar place and I was really struck by the silencing of our history and the perpetual negating of our presence and existence.” Blue says: “Black people and people of color have been in Europe for a long time and we’re fed up of that being so inconceivable for a majority of people. I wanted to make a movie about the experience of being black in Germany, the experience of looking for a sense of home even though you should never have been struggling so much to find it.”

What did the production process look like?

“Home?” was the biggest project that I did so far. It was an incredible amount of work because I did everything in it apart from the music, which was made by the very talented Marta Helm. But for this movie I came up with the idea, I filmed everything, I animated everything, I edited it, I color corrected it, I did the sound etc… I also had no funding so I had to do it next to my regular jobs which meant that I couldn’t work on it on a regular basis because of lack of time or energy. But the beauty of it for me was that as it formed, it got more and more personal. I invited my friends to be in it, I showed my daily surroundings, and then it became very healing because I finally could express my story and, I think stories like this need to be told more.

What have the reactions been to the film so far?

I’ve only had positive reactions so far. A lot of people from different backgrounds came to tell me that they could relate very much to what was being said. I’ve been thanked for my honesty and my vulnerability a lot and coming from the queer community of color that meant the world to me.

“Home?” is about the identity of the narrator, at many points she explains not feeling welcome in her own culture, have you felt represented by the German film industry?

Actually the narrator is not a “she” I made an effort to not gender the character in my animations and I think there is no such thing as an inherently “female” or a “male” voice, especially not in this case, because it is mine and I am non-binary; but indeed I have never felt represented in the current mainstream German film industry and the lack of diversity in it is appalling and probably explains why you have to dig to find excellence. The mainstream German film industry has a past of representing black people and very often Afro-Germans in movies full of colonial fantasies about what Africa is like. Nowadays it simply fails to represent its population adequately because it can’t conceive the German culture being also not white (or not heteronormative).

What are your next plans?

I actually also like the idea of producing a web-series. I want to talk about other things than being black and queer and trans* and all of these things. I also have an identity apart from what is used to try to marginalize me. I think that if the world really cared about diversity, people like me wouldn’t be reduced to talk about what makes them so “incredibly diverse” (in a non -threatening way, of course), but it would just be self-evident to have their films along with other peoples films on festivals and such. So my next film or series will be about the unhealthy sides of the common understanding of romantic love. I’m already really excited about it!

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