“Kassel has people who integrate, and I would count myself among them. People who don’t say ‘I will use you for something’ but ‘You are part of something,’” says Gerhard Wissner Ventura, director of Kassel Dokfest.
“I try to organise the festival as much as possible without hierarchies. Everyone on the team has different tasks, but to begin with I don’t distinguish between someone who curates and someone who sells tickets. We have no volunteers because work must be paid, and we try to maintain those social standards across the board.”
For nearly 30 years, Wissner has been running the documentary festival in Kassel, which just finished its 38th edition in the central German city–“geographically the heart of Europe,” as Wissner positions it–with a team of seasoned and emerging programmers and a clear idea of not only what to show but how to curate, present, and collaborate.
Several elements make Kassel unique to documentary professionals, though it runs late in the year after the bigger European festivals Visions du Réel, Leipzig and Sheffield have taken place and coincides with the final giant player, IDFA. The team plays to their strengths to carve out a discernible profile, focussing on well-curated thematic short film clusters, noted transmedia presentations–evident in the annual Monitoring group show of media art shown across town–well thought-out educational initiatives from intensive school group facilitations, teacher workshops and expert symposia, a youth jury, and on- and off-screen regional art academy showcases including exchanges with young artists in China and France.
The festival radiates a sense of collective curation, solidarity, friendliness, and inter-generational dialogue and has a knack for marrying local, national and global documentary scenes as well as teasing out trends and strands in their program clusters. I sat on the (fully vaccinated, tested and masked) Golden Key jury this year, as we gave two awards and a special mention to a Bosnian-Dutch, a Chinese-Cambodian-French and a British filmmaker, with separate prizes for regional works. Says Wissner: “It’s part of the process that when someone new starts teaching moving image at the local art academy for example, we do a show of their work at some point. Otherwise, people don’t become visible.”
Given its place in the festival calendar and its size–54 feature-length films and 168 shorts were selected out of 3069 submissions from 54 countries this year—Kassel does not get many feature-length premieres, but Wissner was proud to present The Other Side of the River by Antonia Kilian. The Kassel-based director shot her directorial debut over one year with women in Northern Syria and returns home with her film, which is already an international success. Nearly half of the overall program are premieres though, in the thematically grouped shorts sections (up to 66 minutes), and there was a fresh breeze of cinematic language sweep across the screens, influenced by web aesthetics like Minecraft-style or multi-player worlds and enticingly mysterious formal experiments foregrounding daring to transgressive content.
Clustering and sense-making infuses the team’s way of working from festival concept to delivery. This year the key visual on the poster, catalogue and festival bag, a rare tulip that eradicates itself through viral impact and “gene silencing” behind a blurry glass pane, was a commentary and multi-layered metaphor of the selection committee’s choices, oscillating between quiet beauty and societal change brought about by crisis. British artist Anna Ridler responded with a 3-screen GAN video installation, Mosaic Virus, which used a data set of photographed tulips and drew direct comparisons to present-day speculation in cryptocurrency. Local artists Josha Lohrengel and Fritz Eggenwirth realised the over-archiving concept with the multi-media window installation Everything Must Go, addressing space speculation and gentrification, a direct and personal riposte to the sudden cancellation of a venue deal they had with a car dealership in favour of a more profitable use. These works were part of Dokfest’s submission-based curated art show Monitoring that spread 22 works across the city’s “art train station,” galleries and public spaces, including a warm and whimsical sound-image installation by Isabell Spengler on a voice-transitioning person inviting others to sing with them in the glass elevators of Berlin’s main train station.
Hong Kong’s Yuk-Yiu Ip won the Golden Cube installation award with his video and digital print work False Words, endlessly reiterating “I have no enemies,” a quote by the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. London artist Sophie Hoyle’s hour-long two-channel film installation Hyperacusis (Chronica), exploring mental health and trauma, received an honorable mention.
Across the on- and off-screen presentations, identity, gender, sexuality and #metoo loomed large (The Case You by Alison Kuhn; Ob Scena by Paloma Orlandini Castro; My Uncle Tudor by Olga Lucovnicova, which played Berlinale and Hot Docs). Several films let audiences in on living with different abilities (Eva-Maria by Lukas Ladner; Looking for Horses by Stefan Pavlović; locks & keys, water, trees by Penny Andrea) or complex subcultures (Hot Docs-Blue Ice Docs Fund Production Grant recipient Aicha Macky with Zinder; Zuhur’s Daughters by Laurentia Genske and Robin Humboldt; The Last Hillybilly by Diane Sara Bouzgarrou and Thomas Jenkou).
The majority of films I saw had very personal angles, even embedded the filmmakers who employed tools from performance and stagings to self-declared narrator status or an open questioning of their roles throughout their films. Kassel is not afraid of inserting experimental expressions into their programs, picking up Esqui by Manque La Banca and Blastogenese X by Conrad Veit and Charlotte Maria Kätzl for example, from the Berlinale Forum as well as equally wild, weird or loud fare like La fiesta del fin del mundo by Andrés Santacruz; Fronteras Visibles by Christian Diaz Orejarena; Theresa Büchner’s Droopy Rose alongside the urgent current affairs gamut of utopia and dystopia, resistance and flight, belonging and diaspora.
In 2019, as a kick-off to Canada’s year-long cultural engagement in Germany in the run-up to “Canada at Frankfurt Book Fair,” Kassel Dokfest ran a Canadian focus with, among other artists, Paulette Phillips and Kapwani Kiwanga, the latter winning the festival’s Golden Cube installation award. Toronto’s Vtape and CFMDC were present and presenting films. This year Canada was represented with a feature-length film and six shorts. Wissner had scouted in Canada before the pandemic; he first visited two decades ago, has been to Hot Docs and sat on the Images Festival jury in 2010. The festival director credits the Canadian funding and support structures for this long-standing affection. Toronto artist Oliver Husain won Kassel’s 2002 production stipend and Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay the same the following year.
Like so many other cultural events, Dokfest 2020 was planned as an in-person festival and hit hard by the winter lockdown two weeks before opening. Instead of hosting visitors across the festival’s four beautiful old independent downtown cinemas as planned, Wissner streamed cinema curtains opening to blank screens, a silent symphony of a city and world on pause. “I transformed myself into James Benning for a bit and opened up the screen into the cinema,” laughs Wissner, acknowledging though how hard the past two years have been.
This year, Dokfest essentially ran two festivals thanks to the city and province upping their contributions: a full in-cinema and in-gallery program plus live workshops and a late-night social lounge with DJ sets as well as a full online program of films, artist talks and more. There is no way back, says Wissner, stressing that hybridity is the festival circuit’s future and increases access and reach, but Kassel thrives on in-person encounters, exchange and debate. With the noticeable absence of a market and industry element, Kassel is first and foremost an audience festival (including a walking screening tour by Hamburg collective A Wall Is A Screen and a program of fulldome immersion films) as well as one inviting artist and curators to gather and engage.
Given the dramatically spiked German Covid numbers as the six festival days went on, “I predict that we are the last in-person festival for a while,” the festival director mused hours before the awards show. Indeed, a day later, Munich Film Week was postponed, the European Film Awards announced that their ceremony would take place without an audience and Austrian cinemas closed for at least 10 days. Kassel did well amid ongoing challenges and restrictions, recording 3613 in-cinema visitors plus 3100 visitors to their other physical events plus over 8000 views for their own DokfestStreams platform and another 1000 views on their free DokfestChannels featuring artist talks. Overall, that matches their 16000 audiences across all programs in the last physical-only pre-Covid 2019 edition and is a healthy hybrid adaptation, compared to 10000 views for last year’s virtual-only festival films and 10000 views on DokfestChannels.
Dokfest is before documenta, the uber quinquennial contemporary art exhibition Kassel is internationally known for, which is happening in its 15th reiteration in summer 2022. Over a million international visitors are predicted to descend on the mid-sized town over the three documenta months as the mega show occupies Kassel’s many museums, parks, cinemas and post-war industrial halls (the city, home to weapons manufacturers, was 90% destroyed in World War II, a fact that is hard to ignore when walking the rebuilt city centre).
Wissner has facilitated three documenta film programs, as all cultural players in the tight-knit city seem interconnected and share abundant spaces. “documenta happens every five years, always curated by a different person or group, always reinventing itself. Each documenta has played our cinemas differently over the last 25 years. So, for us it’s about getting to know each other, presenting our ideas to each new documenta leadership, entering into a conversation about possibilities,” explains Wissner about his festival’s relationship to documenta. Indonesian art collective ruangrupa, responsible for the upcoming documenta fifteen, are already living and working in Kassel, activating the local networks and arts workers with infectious curiosity and enthusiasm. They are in the middle of a public talk series around their declared values from “local anchor” to “regeneration,” qualities and threads one can also find at Kassel Dokfest.
Ruangrupa have opened their “ruruHaus” to one of the Dokfest exhibitions and were hosting the festival’s awards ceremony to let a few hundred people gather socially distanced. In turn, the city’s cinemas that Dokfest runs year-round are open to documenta fifteen’s roster of global arts collectives. As I was sitting in ruangrupa’s communal kitchen hub for a chat, South African artist group Chimurenga were dropping by on their way to a site visit. Wissner later told me that the Ramallah-based Subversive Film collective, who are part of documenta fifteen, are digging into Dokfest’s archive, which started shelving analogue VHS tapes in 1989.
“Relationships in space and time” was the title of one Young Doc Fest program that compiled “films that manage to transport meaning through their audio-visual montage into the world where there used to be none. Implicitly, they fundamentally question the status quo of documentary filmmaking.” The Kassel Dokfest works I saw often did question the form in intriguing and lingering ways and created new meaning, making the festival with its curatorial attentiveness an attractive destination beyond its regional and national importance. The Golden Key Award for young directors, by the way, is named after the shortest fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, who lived in Kassel; it’s an open-ended allegory for careful, patient and mindful approaches, also to film festival programming:
“Once in the wintertime, a poor boy had to fetch wood. Afterwards, he wanted to make a fire and warm himself. He scraped the snow away and found a small golden key. Now he believed there must also be a lock, so he dug in the ground and found a little iron chest. ‘If only the key fits!’ he thought. ‘Certainly, there are valuable things in the chest.’ He looked, but there was no keyhole. Finally, he found one, so small that it could scarcely be seen. Fortunately, the key fit. He turned it once… and now we must wait until he has finished unlocking and opened it. Then we shall find out what kind of wonderful things were hidden in the little chest.”
Kassel Dokfest 2021 Winners
The festival granted three cash prizes with a total value of €12,000 and a production grant of up to €8,000 to:
Honorable Mention: A-38-Production Grant Kassel-Halle
Zwei Drittel | Ada Gräff | Germany | 18 Min.
Award Winner: A-38-Production Grant Kassel-Halle
NAYA – Der Wald hat Tausend Augen | Sebastian Mulder | Netherlands | 24 Min.
Honorable Mention: Golden Cube
Hyperacusis (Chronica) | Sophie Hoyle | France, United Kingdom | 64 Min.
Award Winner: Golden Cube
流/言 [FALSE WORDS] | Yuk-Yiu Ip | Hong Kong
Award Winner: Golden Key Short Film
当海里长出森林 (When the Sea Sends Forth a Forest) | Guangli Liu | France | 21 Min.
With support from the City of Kassel
Honorable Mention: Golden Key Feature Film
locks & keys, water, trees | Penny Andrea | United Kingdom | 99 Min.
Award Winner: Golden Key Feature Film
Looking for Horses | Stefan Pavlović | Bosnia and Herzegovina, France, Netherlands | 88 Min.
With support from the City of Kassel
Honorable Mention: Golden Hercules
The Other Side of the River | Antonia Kilian | Finland, Germany | 90 Min.
Award Winner: Golden Hercules
La sorsier kabiné | Joey Arand | Germany, French Southern and Antarctic Lands |30 Min.
The hybrid 39th Kassel Dokfest took place from 15-20 November 2022.