Does protest work?
Can cinema make a difference? 

These were the two questions implicitly posed by “Film and Protest: Popular Uprisings in the Cold War,” the retrospective of the 66th DOK Leipzig — more formally the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film, which ran from 8th to 15th October in Germany’s 8th-biggest city.

Outside the country, fast-growing, increasingly prosperous Leipzig is probably best known for its association with Johann Sebastian Bach, who was effectively the “house composer” at the landmark churches of St Thomas and St Nicholas from 1723 to 1750. Inside Germany, the city is, for many, also synonymous with the peaceful protest movement which began in the same St Nicholas church in 1980 — when Germany was still divided, and Leipzig was the largest metropolis located entirely in the East. 

The movement peaked on 9th October 1989, when around 72,000 people staged a candlelight procession around the city centre ring road — this would prove a decisive moment in the collapse of the GDR.

Each 9th October, Leipzig commemorates the march via the Festival of Light. And this year, DOK Leipzig — whose history dates back to 1955 — imaginatively intersected with this much younger, much shorter event by kicking off the 22-film retrospective on the big day, in spectacular style at the city’s colossal railway station.

In the cathedral-like East Hall three archival shorts were screened to a seated audience of 500, plus an uncountable number who stood for all or part of the unticketed show — many of them rail passengers primarily using the station for transportation purposes.

The evening began with Leipzig-based painter Rainer Schade’s 11-minute grimly allegorical 1990 animation Sitis (Latin for “thirst”) then a brace from 1991: Anatolijs Pjatkins’ 10-minute Mūris (The Wall) from Latvia and Małgorzata Bieńkowska-Buehlmann’s 29-minute Wyjście (Exit, aka Escape, 1990.)

Of the three, The Wall stood out as arguably the most outstanding selection in the retrospective purely from an artistic/creative perspective, the one which made me keenest to track down other entries in its maker’s filmography. Still little-known outside the Baltic region, Pjatkins was born in Amur, in Russia’s far east, grew up in Tallinn, and after moving to Riga in 1949 started working for the national television studio in 1960 — mainly as a cinematographer (amassing hundreds of credits) but occasionally as a director.

In visual terms, The Wall is a typical example of black and white cinema vérité, seemingly shot candid camera style with concealed equipment, chronicling the reactions of city centre passers-by to a small section of the (recently dismantled) Berlin Wall. In autumn 1990, the graffiti-daubed concrete was erected in Riga “as a gesture of solidarity,” during the period when the three Baltic republics were quickly moving towards independence. Latvia would officially break free of the crumbling USSR in August 1991; the wall fragment can still be seen, incorporated in a larger sculpture, in Riga’s Kronvalda Park.

A droll, brisk miniature, with one moment of particular hilarity when a pet Afghan hound naughtily uses this fragment of history as their toilet, The Wall concentrates squarely on the visages of regular Riga citizens, their range of eloquent expressions bypassing any need for any text or commentary. Music can often be a hazardous element in documentary cinema, but here the leftfield score — it sounds like a jazz jam session, composed and performed by Mārtiņš Brauns —  is a genuine embellishment, nimbly emphasising how the wall fragment strikes those who encounter it as three dimensional avatar of their exciting, if daunting, new post-Soviet era.


Bieńkowska-Buehlmann’s Exit is a rather more straightforward historical document, a slice of empathetic reportage — some sources identify it as having been made for television — which captures, for posterity, a remarkable, brief episode in modern European history. It was shot in Poland between 10 and 20 October 1989, in the immediate aftermath of the Leipzig march, and just a couple of weeks before the opening of the Berlin Wall, allowing East Germans to finally enter the West. At this point, Poland had broken more fully away from Soviet control than the GDR, and some desperate, impatient citizens of the latter risked their lives by swimming across the rivers Neisse/Nysa and Oder/Odra towards liberty.

Shot on colour 16mm, Exit begins disarmingly in media res with direct-to-camera testimony by refugees, young men in their teens and 20s, who speak — urgently, and with evident relief — of how their flight from the oppressive restrictions of Brandenburg has been aided by the passive connivance of border-guards: “Polish officers turned around on purpose.” The protagonists here are apparently fresh from their ordeal: “It’s a fucking abomination by East Germany,” one of them rails, breaking down into tears as he does so. The focus switches to the German embassy in Warsaw, where bureaucracy quickly enables these “stateless persons” to reach the ultimate destination in the Federal Republic. An elderly local expresses his sympathy: “it is possible that they will be our neighbours in two weeks’ time.”

A fine example of direct, tightly-focused journalism, Exit has been surprisingly seldom-shown since its completion (and presumably broadcast) in 1990: it popped up at the Hamburg Film Festival in 2009 and then at Houston’s WorldFest in 2010, where it won one of the major prizes. As the DOK Leipzig catalogue somewhat mysteriously put it, “the footage was forgotten and only re-discovered 20 years later.” More than a decade later it has again re-emerged, and this time it deserves to remain in prominent circulation for at least as long as matters of migration and the treatment of refugees are at the forefront of popular debate and populist agitation in Europe (and beyond.) The decision to screen Exit in the train station was something of a programming masterstroke given the current political situation in this particular part of the world. While Leipzig — for centuries a mercantile conurbation, in contrast to its more aristocratic near-neighbour Dresden — has essentially been a left-leaning city for decades (the Socialist Party’s Burkhard Jung has been the elected mayor since 2006), its state of Saxony is a different matter. Less than a year ahead of the next landtag elections in September 2024, the far-right, brutishly anti-migrant, anti-refugee Alternative For Germany (Alternative für Deutschland) are leading opinion polls by several points — it is a similar situation in neighbouring Länder, Brandenburg and Thuringia.

It is hard to think of many more persuasive ways to “humanise” refugees in the eyes of potential AfD voters/sympathisers than for them to watch Exit, in which the refugees are people who look and sound just like them, could easily be their own parents: even the clothing and hairstyles of the young men on screen are mirror images of what can be seen among the festival’s mainly youthful, hip audiences. But of course the rise of reactionary populism is by no means restricted to states of the former GDR, and one hopes that programmers of other festivals around Europe will make room for Exit in the wake of its unexpected, unheralded, somewhat sensational DOK Leipzig reappearance.

While Exit amply deserved its spot in the retrospective on the basis of artistic achievement and current relevance, a stricter interpretation of the section’s specific remit regarding uprisings and protests might well have excluded it (ditto, indeed, The Wall). But as those who lived in the Warsaw Pact era during the Cold War would surely attest, a little flexibility rules-wise can go a very long way — and the same is true for film-curatorial flair.

Katharina Franck (primarily a programmer) and Andreas Kötzing (primarily an academic) assembled a well-balanced, compact survey of the subject. They selected 10 documentaries made in the Eastern Bloc countries themselves and six made elsewhere (all bar one from West Germany) — the latter providing an external and not exactly impartial perspective. The former included two valuable snapshots of the Prague Spring in the form of the 36-minute Zmatek (Confusion, 1969) by Evald Schorm and the 30-minute Čierne dni (Black Days, 1968) by Ladislav Kudelka, Milan Černák, Ctibor Kováč and Štefan Kamenický. While both were officially Czechoslovakian productions, Black Days was made in and about Slovakia, focussing on events in Bratislava and Banská Bystrica — far from the CSSR capital which grabbed most of the world’s attention at the time.

Seeing the optimism that powered Prague (/Bratislava) Spring with the benefit of 21st century hindsight was necessarily a sobering, even depressing experience. But this was countered by our knowledge of how things would play out in the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia some two decades later, as chronicled in the retrospective’s final program.

Andres Sööt’s dryly ironic 59-minute Draakoni aasta (Year of the Dragon, 1988) provided a rare example of humour in what was (inevitably) a somewhat downbeat historical survey. A record of the Estonian SSR across 12 months of mainly joyous tumult, it uses Chinese astrology to provide a cosmic context for the nation’s boisterously song-powered drive towards self-government. 

It would, of course, be neighbouring Lithuania which really brought down the Soviet house of cards; Arūnas Matelis and Audrius Stonys would become renowned names in documentary in the following years. Their 10-minute Baltijos kelias (The Baltic Way, 1990) is a touching record of a 600km human chain that stretched across the three republics in August 1989. 

Another Baltic non-fiction notable kicking off their career amid the period’s gigantic upheaval was Latvia’s Laila Pakalniņa, whose 19-minute graduation film Doms (The Cathedral, Latvia 1991) — shot on evocatively rough-looking colour video — showed how Riga’s main church, a 13th century edifice built under the auspices of a Saxon bishop, became a crucial refuge, hospital and source of solace during a period of bloody civil strife. A passage of Bach heard briefly on the cathedral organ struck a particularly resonant note when heard in a cinema located between Leipzig’s St Nicholas and St Thomas churches.1

In addition to the live-action films, there were also half a dozen fictional/allegorical animations — despite its nickname, DOK Leipzig has celebrated two distinct, only very occasionally overlapping forms of cinema since 1990 (when it became the “International Leipzig Film Week for Documentary and Animation Film”). The festival’s various incarnations from 1955 to 1989 operated under governmental oversight, interference and repression of various degrees.

Birth of Solidarity

Franck and Kötzing concluded their catalogue introduction by situating the retrospective as “a critical examination of the history of DOK Leipzig… Many films in the program [during the Cold War period] drew attention to human rights infringements, state suppression and social protests; the popular uprisings in the socialist states, however, were left out for political reasons until the late 1980s.” One of the two films they specified as having been “left out” was Narodziny Solidarności (Birth of Solidarity, Bohdan Kosiński), a baldly-titled 29-minute film from 1981 which concentrates on the legal hurdles that the radically independent trade union faced during its ascent. Four decades later, it is easy to take the emergence and subsequent success of Solidarity, and Poland’s transition to democracy, for granted; works like this are valuable reminders that history could easily have played out in other, grimmer ways. The experience of Poland from the late 1970s to the early 1990s answers both questions posed at the start of this article in the ringing affirmative (the country went to the polls on DOK Leipzig’s final weekend, the results spelling doom for the long-ruling populists of the PiS party that includes several former revolutionary radicals in its upper echelons.) Indeed, it seems reasonable to suggest that the success of anti-Communist, pro-democracy movements in the country was to some degree boosted by the circulation (often in samizdat form) of films like Birth of Solidarity and Marek Drążewski’s 75-minute Niepokonani (Undefeated) from 1984.

The latter examined an uprising of 1956 which, outside Eastern Bloc areas, has never attracted a fraction of the attention of that accorded to events in Hungary during the same year: the brutally-suppressed “Poznań June,” when strikes at a train-factory escalated into widespread anti-government demonstrations across the city. The crackdown claimed the lives of more than 50 people, almost exactly three years after a similarly short-lived uprising in Berlin — generally regarded as the first significant such event in the Soviet “sphere of influence.” It is no coincidence that the Berlin events should have taken place only three months after Stalin’s death in Moscow; among the other manifestations of the post-Stalin “thaw,” the founding of Leipzig’s film festival in 1955.

Fourteen years after the Poznań June, several cities on Poland’s Baltic coast — Gdańsk, Gdynia, Elbląg, and Szczecin — saw another uprising which is similarly underappreciated beyond the nation’s borders, and left 44 dead. The tragic events of 14 December were marked on their 10th anniversary by a night-time memorial service at Gdańsk shipyard in 1980 under the supervision of Andrzej Wajda.

Birth of Solidarity‘s Kosiński captured the event via the 8-minute Wzywamy was (We Summon You, 1981), a stark snapshot executed via chiaroscuro monochrome, in which the faces of mourners are illuminated by candlelight as we hear the testimonies of survivors on the soundtrack. The mood of stoic, elegiac defiance is evident, and we sense the power of the energy that, at this time, was propelling Solidarity into the global consciousness.

A very different face of Polish resistance was provided by Mirosław Dembiński’s 24-minute Pomarańczowa Alternatywa (The Orange Alternative ,1988), celebrating how the young people of Wrocław challenged the dourness of totalitarian rule via absurdity, surrealism and fun: “Poles can be entertaining!” Taking his tone from the anarchic protagonists (“the system is so full of paradoxes that it’s a work of art in itself”) Dembiński spices his film with lively, electronic music and uses city-street graffiti — painted, of course, not sprayed — for the opening and closing titles. At one startling juncture in The Orange Alternative a bunch of film-students from the prestigious Łódź school are arrested and hauled off to the police station; one of them is able to keep their video-camera running, resulting in a rare record of what the inside of a Communist-era cop-shop looked like from the perspective of the state’s “enemies.” Surprisingly (and disappointingly), the police they encounter are friendly, even jolly. Perhaps they, like nearly everyone else, could already read the writing on the wall.

DOK Leipzig — The International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film
8 – 15 October 2023
Festival Website: www.dok-leipzig.de/en


  1. This central location was, sad to report, pretty much the only saving grace of the Cinestar multiplex which hosted more programs at DOK Leipzig than any other venue, including — with clanging incongruity — the vast majority of the Film & Protest retrospective. In a city with several very fine and genuinely independent cinemas/theatres, it is surely regrettable that a venerable, respected, serious-minded and politically-oriented film festival should elect to have so many screenings in a multiplex located within a bland shopping mall (Cinestar shares its floor with a casino, Spielbank.) The decision was presumably dictated mainly on financial/convenience grounds, but also perhaps in the hope that “regular” audiences might be lured into sampling more austerely challenging fare. The big new film released during DOK Leipzig 2023 was, ironically enough, a documentary destined to outstrip all other non-fiction pictures at the global box-office: Sam Wrench’s Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour; the “eras” in question refer to Swift’s bestselling albums such as Red, Speak Now, Fearless — and 1989.

About The Author

Neil Young is a journalist, curator, filmmaker and actor from Sunderland, UK, based in Vienna, Austria. A professional critic since 2000, he has contributed to many international outlets including Sight & Sound, The Hollywood Reporter, Screen International, Little White Lies, Modern Times Review and MUBI Notebook. He works in consultation and/or programming capacities for several film festivals including the Viennale and Vienna Shorts (Austria). His feature-length directorial debut Rihaction premiered at the Diagonale festival in Graz, Austria in 2019 and he has since completed several other films of various lengths which have been screened internationally. His acting roles include in Joanna Hogg's The Souvenir (2019) and Paul Poet's Soldier Monika (2024.)

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