SPD politician and former Bundestag president Wolfgang Thierse was Willy Brandt's most important interlocutor in the SPD of the GDR. In this interview, he talks about his passion for politics, the power of documentaries and the greatest challenges of our times.
Human Rights Film Festival (HRFFB): The theme of this year’s festival is ‘The Good Fight’. What is the biggest sociopolitical fight that needs to be fought right now?
Wolfgang Thierse: We are living in times in which we are being confronted by dramatic challenges and injustices. These include Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the worsening climate catastrophe, which we have to prevent. It’s up to policymakers to share the burdens, but also the opportunities, fairly. That’s a big challenge that requires really radical changes in the ways that we produce and consume.
HRFFB: Many of our films are precisely about this imbalance in the context of the production processes you mentioned. Where do you think action can be taken to prevent each individual from feeling powerless?
Thierse: First and foremost, a fair trade and resource policy must be pursued on a global scale. What individual consumers can do, on the other hand, is somewhat modest but necessary nonetheless: it’s about changing awareness in consumer behaviour. We need to pay more attention to where a product comes from and ask ourselves whether the price is reasonable and fair – or outrageously cheap. Because our previous consumer behaviour in the West has led to the catastrophe in which we now find ourselves.
HRFFB: The Willy Brandt Documentary Award for Freedom and Human Rights is intended to support outstanding filmmakers whose work exemplifies Brandt’s values. Why is film as a medium particularly well suited to conveying freedom, justice and solidarity? What is its potential for social change?
Thierse: In contrast to feature films, documentaries allow for greater immediacy and authenticity. They show people in their real lives, with their conflicts and hardships, and let them speak in their own authentic languages. There are no constructed, fictional heroes. This direct approach creates a unique effect, unlike feature films, which are often suspected of whitewashing, trivialisation or even mendacity due to the detours they take through fiction.
HRFFB: It’s also our approach as a film festival to give people more direct access to stories.
Thierse: Anyone exposed to the daily news experiences a flood of information about conflicts, war, poverty and misery. This inevitably leads to a process of habituation and desensitisation, otherwise it would be unbearable. Documentary films have the potential to break through precisely this process by focusing on a single event, a single place or a single person and telling their story. This form of delivery is so much more impactful and gets closer to the viewer’s mind and heart as well.
HRFFB: You yourself worked on scripts for DEFA documentaries in the GDR. Do – and can – documentaries have to be objective?
Thierse: Documentaries should be as accurate as possible, but they don’t have to be impartial. It’s part of the essence of documentary film-making to bring up something that would otherwise be overlooked or distorted. I think this partiality is very valuable. In the GDR, however, film was often instrumentalised and used as an agitational tool to spread ideological judgments about reality.
HRFFB: You yourself have an eventful biography: you were politically engaged in the GDR and during the Wende period, and you are still engaged today. Was there a moment in your life that politicised you?
Thierse: I grew up in a very political household and inherited my passion for politics from my father. Living in the GDR, in an unfree, communist state on the border to the West, you constantly asked yourself how you could change political and social conditions. Experiencing restrictions, a lack of freedom and humiliation politicised me, and my longing for a different country spurred me on. This could only become reality with the peaceful revolution of 1989/90, when we found our public voice and stopped being afraid – and fear is a central pillar of a dictatorship. We realised how much creativity and courage we had in us that had remained hidden during everyday life under dictatorship. That was the awakening I remember with great enthusiasm. It was the decisive moment in the peaceful revolution.
HRFFB: All over Europe, we are currently experiencing a frightening shift to the right – in Poland, Hungary and Austria but also in Germany. You have been committed to combating right-wing extremism for years. What can be done?
Thierse: This is a disturbing development that has deeper causes. Dramatic times of upheaval are also times of fear, of insecurity and thus times for populists who give easy answers, promise solutions to problems and seduce people. They are dangerous times. Therefore, it is, firstly, necessary for democratic politicians and parties to make more visible efforts to find solutions without promising miracles. Secondly, they have to make their actions and decisions understandable and thus invite citizens to think, feel and participate. That seems to me to be the crucial thing. Thirdly, democratic forces must stand in solidarity with each other and clearly distinguish themselves from nationalists, neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists. They must confront those who spread hate.
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