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Wieland Speck, director of the Berlin Panorama on the Teddy 20

For the twentieth time, the annual gay and lesbian Teddy Award will be presented at the upcoming Berlinale. For the anniversary the Panorama, working with the Berlin Film Museum, has put together a Retrospective. The Teddy Twenty Tribute will present Teddy Award winners from the past two decades, documenting the turbulent history of gay and lesbian film. An interview with Wieland Speck, director of the Panorama and prime witness to the development of the Teddy, about early battles, old wounds and late recognition. Despite progress made in gay emancipation, the fight against discrimination is as important today as ever, says Speck. “We are not even close to where we think we are.”

How was the idea of the Teddy born? What were the motives behind awarding a gay and lesbian film prize?

It began when Manfred Salzgeber was appointed by Moritz de Hadeln to direct the Panorama section, which was still known as the “Info-Schau” back then. Manfred had built up a new film scene in Berlin, which demanded a different type of work in the festival. The Panorama managed to do just this, namely bring in films that were interesting for these new art house cinemas.

Coinciding with the women’s and gay liberation movements, more and more films were being made on both issues. With regards to the women’s issue, we weren’t the only ones, but for gay films we were the only ones, and worldwide for that matter. When we saw that with these films we were also attracting the movers and shakers and theoreticians, the idea arose to hold meetings during the Berlinale. They took place at the “Prinz Eisenherz” bookstore. There we set up a café at night where we showed films on 16mm and video that would otherwise not have made it into the festival, but which were important for this subculture.

Opening eyes to gay and lesbian film

Carmen Maura, Pedro Almodóvar and Manfred Salzgeber at the Berlinale 1987Out of this work developed the idea of presenting a gay and lesbian film prize. During the 1987 festival I decided to ask this group that was meeting there: What do you think was the best film? The answer was: among the feature films, Pedro Almodóvar and for the short films Gus van Sant, two directors no one knew about at the time. That was the first jury decision and therefore the Teddy’s hour of birth. For ten years this group made up the Teddy jury – on the condition that the people were there for the entire duration of the festival and had seen at least 85 percent of the films.

In the beginning the Teddy was awarded only to films in the Panorama.

Yes, but from the beginning the idea was to expand this prize to cover all the sections. We wanted to persuade the other programmers to open their eyes to gay and lesbian cinema. Because our experience was that at every festival in the world, and also in the other departments of the Berlinale, nobody had paid attention to gay and lesbian film.

To what extent could one talk about “gay and lesbian film” as a genre back then? Did the Panorama contribute to the development of such a genre?

I would say that in went hand in hand. As soon as filmmakers realise that there is a place where they will be taken seriously, it emboldens them with regards to their work. Still today, gay and lesbian films are the films will the smallest budgets. Typically distributors and financiers stay away from films about minorities. That’s why, from the beginning, it was not just important whether a film was gay or lesbian, but that we showed good films. We didn’t just want to open up a sub-cultural platform. That would have damaged the reputation of the Panorama and the films themselves. We managed to create a stronger presence for this segment. The buyers saw that there was an urban audience that was interested – an audience that went far beyond gays and lesbians themselves.

Was there criticism at the time that such a prize would make these films compete with one another? When the Forum was founded that was an important factor delineating it from the rest of the festival: “Don’t create a competitive situation.”

It is not the homosexual who is perverse, but the society in which he lives When the idea of the Teddy was born, we already noticed that films benefited from an award. For example, because the press likes to have a peg to be able to report on a film. It’s also important – especially with an award that sees itself as political like the Teddy – that a filmmaker can return with a prize from the Berlinale to his country, where he is actually an outlaw because of his films. The dilemma we set into motion in certain countries is something that we especially enjoyed. "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" - this was very effective.

Again and again while preparing for the festival, I had the experience that my request for gay and lesbian or transgender cinema would first result in speechlessness in many countries. But because it is the Berlinale, after all, they have to take look around and ask: What’s actually out there? These are the political issues, which lie behind the Teddy. Therefore we have never asked ourselves the question, whether we still need the Teddy. The press has often raised this question. They say the issue has long since been resolved – but that’s not the case with us and by no means in most countries of the world, where it continues to be an absolute disadvantage to be gay or lesbian.

“The patriarchy is still the ruling power.”

When you reminisce, do you “look back in anger”?

The first ten years of the Teddy were hard work. In the second decade it was up and down, depending on political events. In the beginning most of the films came from America and Europe. With emancipation gaining ground in more and more countries, it became possible to make films on gay and lesbian issues. But in many countries gays and lesbians as well as people, who make films on this subject, continue to be outlawed. To show a film from Iran about a transsexual, as we did three years ago, was a sensation. We had to take enormous precautionary measures, because this continues to be a highly political issue.

But it’s by no means just the Islamic countries. In our neighbouring Poland a man was recently elected president who has been spreading so much hatred towards gays and lesbians, that a lot of people have been hurt, also physically. At the moment in Poland, gays and lesbians are being attacked by neo-Nazis and the police are doing nothing about it. This shows that we are nowhere even close to where we think we are, when we see a mixed crowd enjoying itself in the bars and on the dance floors here. The basic political situation hasn’t changed. The patriarchy is still the ruling power on this planet and in each and every country; and the patriarchy feels extremely threatened by men who don’t go along with it.

You have already said that Teddy is a political film award. Has the focus of the prize, the definition or the intentions behind it, changed?

Scene from Fucking Åmål, Teddy award winner 1999It has changed, especially for us in “the West”, where more and more gay and lesbian characters can be seen integrated into films. Through the end of the Seventies, the gay character had to be dead by the end of the film, that is, if he hadn’t been sent on in the middle as the comic relief. It took until 1980 for the first films to appear in which actual living, feeling homosexuals who experienced moments of happiness appeared.

"Up until the Seventies, gays had to be dead by the end of the film."

“Teddy-relevant” – that’s how we expressed it in the beginning – was every film that advanced a gay or lesbian topic. It’s totally irrelevant whether the filmmakers themselves are gay or lesbian. It’s about the issues: How do gays and lesbians live their lives? How do they feel? What is the struggle? What are the politics? This can be seen most clearly in the early militant documentaries – there was anger and energy behind them. In the mid-Eighties AIDS became an issue. Here too there were angry films about the lack of political response. But they were also films that show how the social fabric of the gay family functions.

These were important sociological steps for gays. Among other things, they altered the way hospitals were run, to the benefit of everyone, because now hospitals have a totally different way of handling chronic illnesses. This was due to the fact that a minority wouldn’t allow itself to get sick and simply die out – something many on the political right would have liked to have seen happen, of course. Many filmmakers whose movies we showed and who won the Teddy died of AIDS, like Derek Jarman for example, but also Manfred Salzgeber himself.

Alongside these difficult, bitter issues, it became more and more about expressing joy for life. Historically, the Seventies were the first joyful phase for homosexuals. This joy was nearly extinguished by AIDS. The “overcoming” of AIDS through political activism, through social work, through artistic work, through medical progress, which partially had to be demanded by taking to the streets – all this led to the fact that joy is absolutely necessary again. This means that we once again have more entertaining films, mostly biting comedies. A market has developed which sees homosexuals as consumers, and of course this is reflected in the films. Now there are several film distributors that specialise in gay and lesbian film, others carry them in their programme as a matter of course. Here the situation has improved considerably.

Just recently, alarming figures were published on the spread of AIDS. AIDS has long since moved away from stigmatised high-risk groups and developed into a disease of the poor, which has taken on epidemic proportions in Africa.

Karl Johnson in Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein (1993)And not just in Africa, but also in China and Russia. Gay political films were always aware that in the future AIDS would affect other parts of society. From “Act Up!” to the help organisations that exist today, the political stance was always: “Don’t look away, AIDS won’t be confined to risk groups for ever!” The responsibility that this minority has shown for others was exemplary and this also comes across in the films. Such films still exist today. There are less of them, though, because the immediate trauma of suffering has changed, since a fast-killing disease has become a chronic one. But the political approach is basically the same and remains just as important.

What contribution does a film retrospective such as the Teddy Twenty Tribute make to this socio-political debate?

Homosexuals are different from other minorities because one doesn’t grow up as what one really is, but as something else. It’s very hard when you are raised with the assumption that you are heterosexual and then realise, during puberty, that you are not heterosexual. Since one only discovers this late, each generation thinks they invented it and fought for it themselves. Therefore it’s often very hard to see a historical connection – that one has a background, that there are “ancestors” and “pioneers”. To get this across and process it is very important in order to develop a political position and a vision for the future. That’s what the Teddy is about.

“Queer Academy”

On the occasion of the anniversary, the “Queer Academy” will be launched this year: an Internet-based database in which all films which were nominated for a Teddy or won one will be documented – in the future all films set in a gay or lesbian context which have run at the Berlinale since 1980 will be included. In the long term, this will expanded beyond the Berlinale, because of course there are great films which aren’t shown at the Berlinale. Comprehensive materials related to the films will be available. With this we will support political as well as aesthetic film work worldwide. The Teddy Twenty Tribute will give us a thorough overview to help understand the history of gay-lesbian film. There we can see that nobody fell from the sky. Everywhere there is a societal context with differing moral codices and a different approach to them. It’s worth taking a closer look.

How extensive is this retrospective?

It will occupy 18 programming slots, 8 features, 8 documentaries and two slots with short film programmes. The Tribute is part of the Retrospective section, but the Panorama is supervising it, because most of the films ran with us. A broad alliance is contributing to the project. For example, Arte will be doing a thematic evening on 20 Years Teddy. What’s more, we’ll be creating “Teddy Tribute Travel Size”, a condensed programme that can travel around the world after the Berlinale. Part of this work is about encouraging cohesion.

Did you have problems finding copies, titles you wanted, which were simply no longer available?

Yes, there were several problems, simply because these films had to be made with the lowest possible budgets. It’s then that you see how films get old, because at some point there’s not even a single copy left. The fact is that archives often don’t do justice to these films. Here too, the basic attitude of society is reflected: Nobody notices if gays or lesbians aren’t involved in a representative activity. We also realised when we were obtaining copies that not only are many of the films no longer around, many of the filmmakers have actually died. Sometimes their heirs aren’t interested in the homosexual cause. On the contrary, gays and lesbians are often posthumously heterosexualised. Once you start researching these things, you open old wounds.

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