They got to cover one of the world’s longest running film festivals, while still in high school. They got to hang out with filmmakers and look behind the scenes. All this happened right here in their city, and with a bunch of other enthusiastic young people – their fellow DOK Spotters.
It can be said that the high schoolers had a taste of two worlds: that of journalism and that of filmmaking. These two worlds can overlap, especially in the sphere of documentaries. Working professionally in them, and trying to conciliate them, is both alluring and potentially exhausting.
How did Jelena Burger, 18, and Moritz Riedel, 16, navigate the DOK Spotters experience?
In between juggling various events at the end of this year’s DOK Leipzig, the two sat down with me and gave me a glimpse into the cosmos of the DOK Spotters. The program, a growing fixture of the film festival since 2008, provides mentoring and a channel for students in Germany to engage with the international film circuit and show their discoveries via multimedia. They learn how to shoot and edit video and work with audio, and write stories for media, too.
Jelena and Moritz were among this round’s 14 young participants, with Jelena being a bit of a veteran (it’s her second time around) and also one of the oldest.
Jelena said that she likes that her fellow DOK Spotters were different ages, and that she could give some input to younger people. She mentioned a 15-year-old who was really creative but needed help, and she was happy to pitch in and then see him thrive on his own.
Moritz said Jelena gave him really good guidance through the process. Although the two knew each other before from school, they got to see “each other in a much more different light,” she said. “It was so much fun to have this experience together.”
She heard about DOK Spotters from her teacher, and signed up again this year because she “loved it last year. (…) It’s always really busy, but you get so much input from other people. You really get contact with the directors. (…) You learn much more here in one week than in three months [sitting] in school.” To sum things up:
“You have a whole different perspective on life when you watch a documentary.”
I asked the two high schoolers whether they were interested in film to begin with. Jelena had been more interested in journalism before her first DOK Spotters experience; but since then, she’s been hooked in the art and watches as many documentaries as she can. She likes the idea of inspiring “people with the story that you choose. You can change the way people see life, and you have no rules, no borders. Maybe that’s what fascinates me about [documentaries], too, that you can make something on your complete own and have so much impact on people.”
She’s now torn between traveling the world making documentaries and working as a journalist – she’d like to figure out how to combine them. Although there is some reporting involved in filmmaking, she thinks of the interviews she conducted as a DOK Spotter more as a second-hand experience rather than being in the filmmaking trenches.
Moritz had been interested in both fields, but feels he “didn’t know what a documentary was before this week. These… documentaries were really different from the conventional [ones] you see on TV.” Right now, the prospect of making documentaries is winning out over journalism for him, because he wouldn’t like the constant pressures of daily reporting.
He got into DOK Spotters via Jelena’s encouragement, and is very glad he did: “You have all these films, and you want to watch everything, though you can’t. It’s great, it’s just great.”
He conducted two interviews as a DOK Spotter. One was with the director of Cabbage, Potatoes and Other Demons, whom Moritz called “a pretty funny guy, really nice.” The second was with Özge Calafato, curator of the DOK 2016 Country Focus on Turkey, which he called “very cool, very cool.” Another highlight for him was meeting many filmmakers who happened to be from Britain.
Jelena’s “biggest project was an interview with both brothers of Brother Jakob,” the director and the protagonist of the film. She names it as “probably the best experience” as a DOK Spotter this year: “I had a really nice talk with them.” She also made a second video interview, with the director of Looking Like My Mother, and got to meet various other filmmakers at the DOK Leipzig parties.
So what were their favorite DOK films and takeaways?
Jelena said Brother Jakob was probably the film that most inspired her: “Because it’s about religion. But not about how we feel about religion in our normal life or how the media feels about it, but it’s much more about the spiritual thing, that it’s your own thing… your way to see life but not how somebody tells you how to see life. (…) I actually just started thinking about it, so I have to think about many things” – to reflect after the DOK is over and there’s alone time.
Moritz initially hesitated to name any favorites among the many films he was exposed to, but then arrived at Pickle. The short film dealt with an elderly couple in which “the wife kept picking up half-dead animals, wounded animals from the side of the road and they would take care of them at home” and make them live for years longer than seemed possible.
We chit-chatted a bit more about the evolution of documentaries (seemingly fewer interviews and more “fly-on-the-wall”). Then I went to find their coordinator, Luc-Carolin Ziemann, to get her viewpoint. She spoke about the DOK Spotters with a huge smile on her face – even as she had to go into their “newsroom” in the Zeitgeschichtliches Forum and ask them to turn down the music they were blasting so we could talk.
“All these teenagers are very special persons,” she gushed. “They put 10 days of their lives into this project and they have to [make up] what they miss in school afterwards. So it’s not holidays for them, and not everybody would be able to do this.”
The coordinator said the five professionals in the program give the students practical mentoring through a workshop leading up to the DOK fest, but also the freedom to cover the festival however they want: “We give them tips, but mostly they really scan the catalogue and then come up with 2000 other ideas, and so they really find their stories and their interview partners.”
The annual program gives them the space they don’t have so much at school to pursue these specific interests, the chance to network with like-minded people and learn from each other, and access to key players in the filmmaking circuit, she added.
A major contribution of the DOK Spotters is how they are able to view DOK Leipzig with fresh eyes, she said, as this can be a challenge for people working for the festival for a long time and being engaged behind the scenes so much. (She herself has been with the fest 17 years.) They ask many questions that can be enriching both personally and in terms of coverage, and represent a bridge to what interests the DOK audience – which she says is getting younger each year.