• The Berlin Film Festival Teddy Award celebrates the best in LGBT filmmaking every year. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
The Berlin Film Festival's renowned awards for queer cinema are 30 years young.
11 Feb 2016 - 4:06 PM  UPDATED 11 Feb 2016 - 4:06 PM

For 35 years Wieland Speck has been at the helm of the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama section for independent films, which includes the largest showcase of LGBT films at any major festival. The screenings, often filled with colourful crowds, are usually followed by lively, frank Q & As.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Teddy, the best LGBT film award chosen from across all the festival platforms. Every year a special Teddy is also given for a person’s contribution to queer cinema. This year it goes to Christine Vachon from Killer Films, most recently producer of Todd Haynes' Carol.  

Can you look back over those early years of Panorama?

We were lucky in the '60s and '70s to start something anew. The '50s and '60s in West Germany were pretty grim and dark. While the economy was booming the minds of the people were still in denial of the Nazi time, so we had to bring that up. I was lucky enough to be in that first generation because we opened many doors and felt we would contribute to progress a great deal.

David Bowie’s just passed, Chantal Akerman died in October and Derek Jarman and Rainer Werner Fassbender are long gone. It's a pity these people aren’t around. In many ways Fassbender killed himself trying to get the message out.

I agree. Of course I’m part of that generation that lost half of its friends and close collaborators. I still feel this loss very strongly. How can I put it? If you work from an extreme angle and this is more or less what I’m doing, then you only have a few people anyway, and of those, half of them have died, including the man who started Panorama, Manfred Salzgeber. So I feel sometimes a bit like, where is everybody?

Still, there are new young voices coming up?

This is not a problem, fortunately. But of course when you look from a queer angle you realise that each generation still more or less has the feeling that they invented it. So you don't have a historical feel to that particular minority because it was never written down and it’s not taught in schools. You have some progress there, but it’s much slower than I expected. I thought we would embrace culture with its many facets, but no, there’s still a segregation because of the sexual thing. It makes it so complicated because it’s like, below the belt, it’s not in the mind. So we still have a long way to enlighten and to discuss and to also claim the space to live.

Panorama has a series on the Sensitive Man this year. Which LGBT films deal with this topic?

We have a film from Austria called Tomcat (Kater) directed by Klaus Händl (Marz) asking if it’s possible to live in Europe today as a happy gay couple. The two men are both working for an orchestra and one does something very strange, which includes violence. What the film develops is a view of men as fully functional emotional beings, whereas usually they’re depicted as the guys who do the technical stuff and they have a woman for the emotions.

Théo et Hugo dans le même bateau  is a French film by two great directors Olivier Ducastel et Jacques Martineau (he Adventures of Felix, Côte d'Azur and Jeanne and the Perfect Guy) who were already in the Berlin competition and Panorama before. This is story of two men falling in love and we see them falling in love in a long scene in a dark room where many men have a sex orgy. So you have something most people haven’t seen before very explicitly shown, but just like you imagined a million times. Then out of this orgy you see two people recognise each other and leave that scene and go out onto the street and have a couple of hours in the Parisian night. It’s very sensitive and about men as 100 percent human beings and I like that view, because I think the biggest problem on earth is that we cannot overcome gender roles as they are imprinted on us as babies.

How young people get imprinted for the rest of their lives is the subject of Goat, which was produced by James Franco and Christine Vachon (and stars pop star Nick Jonas). It shows how systematically the white male elite basically is raping the soul of young white men. It’s set in an elite kind of university and when the young men first arrive they are initiated by the ones who are already there in an incredibly cruel way. This is like Abu Ghraib right in front of your eyes now. This I think is a mechanism that is only set in order to keep the white male as the reigning force on the planet and we can see how damaged the people are later, the bosses of big companies and banks and what not.

Franco has been a poster boy for Berlin’s gay cinema (and art) even though he’s straight. It’s remarkable how he plays with gender since he’s a big Hollywood star.

Absolutely. He’s just someone who takes something and moulds it in the best way he can—and it’s usually a gender role that he’s working on. Goat is not a gay film. It’s about being a man and being a member of the white master race. 

Last year’s Berlinale entry, I Am Michael, Justin Kelly’s film about the real life Michael Glatze (James Franco) who turned away from his gayness to marry and become a clergyman, never released in Australia. I thought it was a pretty commercial film.

I don't know how it did in the US [festivals only] but I had some angry people here saying it was an anti-gay film. “Well then you have to discuss it,” I said. We have all these different elements and that's what we’re here for in Berlin. We discuss every single film. James Franco was here last year discussing his four movies. We don't want to have the red carpet idea; we want to deal with the films and the issues we show.

I Am Michael tried to be more a commercial venture. Christine Vachon says she has far less money than she used to have.

The commercial side of filmmaking remains a wonder, a miracle. Of course queer films have it even more difficult as you have less people as a target audience. Christine’s first Teddy was in 1988 for Todd Hayne’s Poison. After that there was a wave you could ride on but that doesn't exist any more. The specifics of queer cinema have disappeared because of emancipation. People ask, “Why do you need to make queer films because we let you live now?” So we have all these attitudes. I get asked, “Why do we need the Teddy still?” But it’s a beast that’s there for the whole world, for all these places that have the greatest difficulty to create a queer life.”

Speck suddenly realises he hasn’t mentioned Panorama’s opening Czech film, I, Olga Hepnarova, by Tomas Weinreb and Petr Kazda.

It tells the true story of a young lesbian woman who does not want to fit into the framework of family. Her breakout is traumatic because she becomes isolated and the isolation leads to her running amok. I see this film as an analysis of how terrorism can be created within society and within family. She was the last woman who was sentenced to death in the Czech Republic in 1975. It’s a beautiful black and white film, very sad, but it’s also sexy and has a good energy.

The festival is having a tribute to David Bowie, who truly helped break down gender boundaries. He enjoyed an incredibly productive time when he lived in Berlin, recording three albums and most famously the song Heroes, about two lovers defying the East German border guards and kissing at the Wall.

I met David when he lived in Berlin. I’m also in a film with him [chuckles] in a small role. We lived in the same street and went to the same bar, a gay café in the building next to where he lived. It was a regular occurrence but when I was near him my mouth went dry! David Bowie is very important for me. When he was here in the late 60s and early '70s it was clear that he wanted to be whoever he wanted to be and to live a normal life and not have people curtail him. The city of Berlin at that time could deliver that. We had our Studio 54, called the Dschungel, a discotheque where we all hung out and worked and there was the bar the Andere Ufer, the Other Shore, a kind of derogatory term at the time for being gay. But during the emancipation we took the bad words and turned them into good words.

What was the movie?

Just a Gigolo. It was a terrible film, but fun to watch because of David Bowie and because it was Marlene Dietrich’s last film. (The handsome Speck is credited as 'Man'.) It was a First World War story from Prussia and he was a gigolo I was a gigolo and Marlene of course she was the mother of the gigolos!

If I was a gay man I’ve always thought Berlin would be the best place to live. 

Yes it’s an easy accessible place. It’s less extremely special than it used to be in the '70s of course but it’s still a good place. It’s not arrogant and that's very important for me.

Have you been to Australia?

I was just in Australia for the very first time last year, in Sydney on the jury of the Antenna Film Festival, a nice documentary festival with very good cineastes running it. I’ve followed their programing and it’s still a young festival and they’ve invited me every year so finally I could say yes.

Why did it take you so long?

I only travel when I have to, when there are many films to watch and no delegate. We have a delegate for Australia who normally sends us the six films we have to see. This time it worked out as I was in Pusan, Jakarta and Manilla, so I had a whole big trip.

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