Natalie Gravenor | Friday January 8th, 2016 | 9
Sometimes the best stories are right outside your door. Filmmaker Martin Helmbrecht, based in Berlin’s working class Wedding district, took this to heart with the three-part documentary series MÜLLER ECKE AFRIKA (Müller Corner Africa, available with English subtitles on realeyz) he conceived and co-directed with Andy Fiebert. Each episode of MÜLLER ECKE AFRIKA portrays an inhabitant of Wedding’s so-called “African Quarter” (Afrikanisches Viertel), originally planned as a zoological park with streets named after Imperial Germany’s colonial possessions in Africa. World War 1 thwarted these plans, but the street names remained when Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other modernist architectects built housing projects there in the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1990s, migrants from African states such as Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria moved to the quarter, so its name actually reflected somewhat the population.
The series’ protagonists are Rob Stöwe, the owner of a Western-style clothing store; activist-historians Israel Kaunatjike and Mnyaka Sururu Mboro; Syrian musician-composer and music bar proprietor Bakri Maslmani. In the following interview, Martin Helmbrecht talks about the journey of his unique documentary project.
realeyz: What was the inspiration for MÜLLER ECKE AFRIKA?
Martin Helmbrecht: I’ve been living in the neighborhood (“Kiez”) for the past ten years. On my street corner – Lüderitzstrasse and Kameruner Strasse – there has been a considerable transformation during the past two years. New stores open, students move here, street life is becoming more vibrant – the Kiez is awakening from its deep sleep. I wanted to chronicle this process. Observe the people who live here and let them tell their own stories. At the same time, a film job didn’t work out, so I knew I would have less money, but more time. So this was my chance.
How did you choose the protagonists?
The three protagonists personify the three main topics: traditions in the Kiez, history (the German colonial legacy) and the energy newcomers bring. Rob has been living on Kameruner Strasse where his store is since age five. He’s a product of West Berlin times and continues to manage the store his father founded. That’s living tradition.
Israel and Mboro tell about the consequences of German colonial policy, based upon their own experiences. And they can trace the colonial legacy by the street names in the neighborhood. That’s living history.
Bakri didn’t know if the African Quarter was former East or West Berlin or which side of the Wall it was on. That’s why the Wall fell, so that it would not matter anymore which side you were on. Bakri stands for the new energy and commitment he and newcomers generally bring to the Quarter, unencumbered by the past.
How did you research and prepare the series?
If you live here in the neighborhood, then you can hardly overlook Rob’s store. I approached him and he immediately agreed. Israel I knew from a street tour he regularly offers with the “Berlin Postkolonial” association. His connection to Mboro turned out to be perfect for our purposes. Bakri was interviewed in a local paper. When I read it I knew immediately that he’s the guy I need, and he didn’t disappoint me.
How easy or difficult was it to gain the protagonists’ trust?
Generally easy, except for Bakri. Everyone had something to say or a life experience to share. And they were willing to do that on camera. Bakri, on the other hand, is rather shy and was concerned that if he talked too much about his difficulties with Berlin bureaucracy, this could have negative consequences for him.
Were there any particularly funny or remarkable experiences or even challenges during the shooting?
How we got the hat scene in the Rob episode was really great. We had just done a few shots with Rob. Then he walks towards the camera and puts the hat on. In the background some people were sitting in front of the “Bantou Village” African restaurant which is right next to Rob’s store. To be on the safe side I asked the restaurant patrons if they would mind being seen on camera. The response was very relaxed. They joked that they would really enjoy appearing in the film… if they got hats. So Rob went back into the store and brought out a pile of Stetsons. This became a beautiful image of friendship out of what I originally saw as a stark contrast – a Western store and an African restaurant right next to each other.
How did the protagonists react to the completed films?
Each protagonist saw his film before the public premiere. It was very moving to see father and son Stöwhase watching the film side by side. They kept pinching each in the side and laughing. By the end their eyes were moist. I realized then that something went right. With Israel and Mboro I was a bit afraid that I subtitled two terms they used in German. But that didn’t bother them. Bakri to this day asks me if I could change this or that and never runs out of suggestions.
What was the response at screenings outside of Wedding or even Berlin? Are there plans for new episodes?
The response at the premiere in January was so positive that we still are getting requests for screenings. There was a well attended screening at the Moviemento cinema in Kreuzberg, and rbb public television covered the series.
We’re already producing the next episodes: at least three with female protagonists in the African Quarter, to be completed in 2014. And we will probably update Bakri’s story. His parents fled from Aleppo to Lebanon years ago. Soon they hope to get visa for Germany. They will build a new life here, and we really want to follow those developments.
All four episodes of MÜLLER ECKE AFRIKA (including a new completed in mid-2015) will be screening on January 18, 2016, 8:30 p.m., at Kino Lichtblick, Kastanienallee 77 in Berlin-Prenzlauer Berg. There will be a Q&A with Martin Helmbrecht after the screening. Co-sponsored by Exberliner and Kino Lichtblick.
Interview: Natalie Gravenor (first published June 2014)