30 years of the Kassel Dokfest
It was the era of great demonstrations and loud arguments. While some people were demonstrating against the west runway at Frankfurt Airport, the recent environmental movement was fighting against the expanding nuclear industry. But everything was overshadowed by the controversy about the peace movement that could mobilize hundreds of thousands against the NATO Double-Track Decision, which marked the final culmination of the Cold War in a still divided Europe. Many Germans were no longer willing to accept anything as a given and as absolute. The concept of the 'Wutbürger' (enraged citizen) did not exist yet. But those ordinary people who suddenly found the courage to stand up against undesirable developments would have deserved that name. Beyond the demonstrations, they were looking for spaces and places for the exchange of ideas and to tell others of the developments and resistance in words and images. An important medium for this was (and is) the documentary film, which stood for a kind of underground cinema because it could not make a mark in public television or theaters.
Therefore, it is not surprising that it was filmmakers and producers who in the autumn of 1981, suggested paying more attention to the very much neglected genre of documentary. They proposed putting together a concentrated program of documentary films, and sending it on the road. In January/February 1982 the time had come: The Travelling Documentary Film Festival was initiated. It went from Erlenbach to Kassel and Hannover.
Only half a year earlier, the Filmladen in Goethestraße had been started as a repertory cinema. It didn't have it very easy in a city whose cinematic landscape was dominated by a monopolist who gave absolute priority to plain entertainment. By participating in the Travelling Documentary Film Festival, the Filmladen team was able to show that a completely different kind of cinema was conceivable. Since the Filmladen was an underdog anyway, it did not matter that the program presented from 22 to 24 January, 1982 tended to be confrontationally partisan, rather than based on aesthetics and a balance of oppinions. The subtitle on the seven-page, hectographed program was: "Films against fascism and for peace, about squatting, against environmental damage, against nuclear power." That was a political statement of intent, which dignitaries would probably not want to put words of introduction next to. After all, films shown then were: "Keine Startbahn West" (No West Runway by Thomas Frickel) or "Breker oder: Nichts gelernt" (Breker, or: Learning Nothing by Detlef Gumm/Hans-Georg Ulrich) or "Züri brännt" (Züri's Burning by the Videoladen Zurich), all of which are now among the classics of the genre.
The Travelling Documentary Film Festival turned out to be a one-off, but the positive response of the audience in Kassel encouraged the Filmladen team to keep going independently and to base their film festival in Kassel. Although two years would pass until the "2nd Kassel Documentary Film Festival" took place from 18 to 22 January, 1984, structures that were created in that comparatively modest event can be felt to this day: What had started out as a weekend affair, had become a festival that ran from Wednesday through Sunday; thematic priorities were set ("Women's Films from the Third World: How Women See Things" and "Portrait Films"), and along with politically motivated films, there were also masterpieces such as Bunuel's "Las Hurdes - Land Without Bread" (1932). The focus was now on documentary film as a medium and its creative possibilities. That was the foundation on which a festival program could be established in the long run. And apart from historic entries such as the Bunuel film, Kassel almost exclusively featured original productions, which were presented by their producers.
Nevertheless, the film festival in Kassel was a tender creature that had been standing in the long shadow of both the Short Film Festival Oberhausen and the Leipzig Documentary Film Festival. But even in 1984/85, the rise into the national and even international film arena was already on the horizon when preparations started for the "3rd Kassel Documentary Film Festival" of 23 to 27 January, 1985. For the first time, the Filmladen had sent out invitations to submit entries to the festival. This paved the way to the Forum for (World) Premieres. In fact, 40 documentaries were submitted, six more than could actually be screened. The Documentary Film Festival was establishing itself. There was a detailed program booklet of 42 A5 pages and for the first time an introduction by Hans Eichel, the Lord Mayor of Kassel at the time. The planning team was credited in the program: Irmhild Scheuer, Frank Thöner and Burkhardt Hofmann. There also was a first attempt to do justice to the new medium of video by turning the Filmladen into a living room with multiple television screens for Gerd Conradt's "The Video Pioneer."
Video was a novel, emancipatory, quasi democratic technology, which allowed films to be made a lot easier and cheaper than the material intensive film cameras. The word video also stood for a new concept of film as such. Before the video recorder conquered the German living room, artists had in the early 70s already demonstrated how creative but also critical they could use that medium. Many filmmakers stuck to the traditional and somewhat elitist technology. Fortunately, the festival planners quickly recognized the important role that video would play in the future. Since then the age of digitalization has long eroded the boundaries between the two media.
The first steps towards a programmatic opening towards video documentaries and video art happened during the "6th Kassel Documentary Film Festival" in 1989, by presenting a program specifically devoted to video at the Café Vis-a-Vis. As had been the case in the very beginning of documentary films, many of the video productions shown were rooted in political struggles. The video filmmakers emerged from media workshops, which dealt with everyday experiences. Thus, "A Brief Introduction to the History of the West German Video Movement" was included in the program booklet. But the artistic side also had a place: At the Messinghof and the Holländische Platz, videos by students of visual communication at the University of Kassel were shown. The speed and scope of transformation that the scene had undergone becomes clear from the program booklet for the 7th Documentary Film Festival in 1990: About half the productions listed in it were on video. There were video documentary films as well as films that explored the margins of the medium, that played with cartoon/animations or image resolution. That worked out well, because a growing number of people in the world of conventional art became dedicated to video and were challenging it through this technique.
It would be easy to make the history of the Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival sound like a total success story. However, there have also been setbacks. For instance, in 1988 the Kassel Dokfest, as it is now known for short, had be canceled for lack of funds. The situation was frightening, and a second cancellation would have been a disaster. Today the festival is too big and has too much charisma to go under just like that. Nevertheless, the festival is always in need of public funding. It is to be hoped that politicians – who these days regularly write introductory statements for the program booklet – are aware that their words of appreciation must also be underpinned with long-term material contributions. Stable funding is also needed, because over the years the festival has become an international forum for documentary and video productions, which not only presents new films, but also sets new trends and standards. The prizes awarded since 2001 are evidence of the confidence with which the festival operates on the national and international market. What had started as a small weekend event, has become a professional year-round operation. This had at last become clear in 1999, when 1000 artists and filmmakers competed to be included in the program. To organize and view such a wide spectrum demands a large team. Then again, a precondition was that since 1991, invitations to submit to the festival are being sent out internationally.
The Kassel Dokfest has become much more than a series of film screenings: Discussions with the filmmakers have always been a part. This led to series of talks and conferences that go far beyond what is on the screen. No less important is that there should also be events for entertainment. The fact that relaxed conversations can contribute to the creative exchange has been known at least since 1987, when the Festival Breakfast became part of the program.
The Kassel Dokfest has produced many children. One of the most important is the exhibition Monitoring in cooperation with the Kunstverein Kassel, which primarily shows video installations. This exhibition, whose beginnings are connected to the relocation of the video segment to Dock 4 in 1992, has great prestige internationally. Sadly, its appreciation suffers, because it is only on during the few days of the festival.
However, the 30-year history of the festival is inseparable from that of the Filmladen. If you imagine for a moment that the team had only had the little Filmladen as a base, as was the case in 1982, it would be clear that it could never have grown to become such a large-scale festival. The integration into the local film scene of the Filmladen, the two BALi Cinemas and the Cinema Gloria, was crucial for allowing different formats to be shown in different spaces, and for five days it turns Kassel city center between the KulturBahnhof, Fridericianum, Cinema Gloria and Filmladen into a space for exploration for those film enthusiasts who seek images of our time in the space between fact and fiction.