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nix verstehen
by Becky Tan

How nice to have an international, but local, film festival all served up in English. But what good is an international film festival for Hamburgers who don’t understand English? My Chinese friend, who speaks German, Chinese and Indonesian, but not English, was eager to explore “my” world of film.

First we attended Stadt, Land, Tier (City-Country-Animal) under the German Competition at Zeise Cinema. All five films well represented Germany’s short film culture; three were especially excellent: Sein Tun Finden, Nashorn im Galopp, and Sonntag 3. Long-term film festival co-worker Lars Frehse had sorted through more than 500 possibilities to find these jewels. After each film, Herr Frehse interviewed the directors. He asked the audience if everyone understood German. Only two people said, “No!” so he happily switched to English for these interviews.

Still, we were happy to give the festival a second chance and stayed for the International Competition, Suffering Suburbians. The four films were grouped under the general topic “suburbia,” which turned out to be rather boring – but perhaps suburbia itself is boring. The one animated film, Ziegenort from Poland, featured a creature that is a half fish, half adolescent boy. It received a prize: Euro 6000 from ARTE television. Ziegenort came to Hamburg from several other short film festivals, even winning Best Film in Brooklyn. Perhaps we should have come better prepared, because we didn’t get it. Even less, we didn’t “get” the fact that these four films were in the original language, with English subtitles – no German subtitles, so, once again, my friend sat in silence, not understanding anything.

The next night, I left my long-suffering Chinese friend at home and went to Ornament Der Masse 2, this time at Metropolis Cinema. Here Masse (Mass Ornament) showed five films of crowds: cows, animated people, flies, sports fans, etc. One, Nashi, presented 10,000 young people in an elite Russian summer camp, a serious, propagandistic look at the future rulers of the country. Another, One Hole showed disgruntled Polish participants at a similar Russian event, an international youth forum at Lake Seliger in Russia. They reported from a critical, humorous, behind-the-scenes perspective.

Lars Frehse had a personal interest in the two “mass” sections. Once again he had spent hours sorting through, this time, more than 200 films in archives, selecting 15 films for the two presentations. It was an interesting idea for a special category. Because these films originated between 2003 and 2012, with one from 1960, the directors were unable to attend, so there was no Q&A in any language after a film. Luckily, three were without dialogue – no language problem there.

Lars Frehse, journalist and copy editor on Hamburg’s short film festival staff, began his dedication with the short film festival in 2003 as translator for the marketing catalogue. Then he became an editor and translator for the festival catalogue which is in German and English. For the last five years he has been curator of special programs and now, since last year, also for the German section. He writes subtitles for foreign-language films and translates the festival website. He is completely dedicated and his enthusiasm is catching. The catalogue is excellent – as complete and helpful as the ones from big international film festivals, e.g., the Berlinale.

Next year will be a big one: the 30th Hamburg Short Film Festival. I definitely recommend this festival, but with good preparation of not only each program’s content, but of the language in which films will be shown, which will aid in satisfactory appreciation. For example, the catalogue explicitly announces all languages, including subtitles, which would avoid disappointments. Or, just be brave and go cold turkey for surprises and new horizons, and, even possibly, frustrations.