Students unhappy with Berlin film school’s new director
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Students unhappy with Berlin film school’s new director

One of Germany’s most important film schools, the DFFB, has appointed UK producer Ben Gibson as its new director. But many students fear the choice means sacrificing creative freedom in favor of “market orientation.”

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One of Germany’s most influential film schools has finally found an ending in the long-running saga over its new director – though there might yet be a sequel. The German Film and Television Academy Berlin (DFFB) confirmed last week that UK film producer Ben Gibson would become its next director, following a year-long dispute that occasionally made it seem like the very future of German cinema hung on the decision.

Gibson, who will be the first non-German to run the 49-year-old academy, was welcomed in a statement by Björn Böhning, the chairman of the board of trustees and head of the Berlin government’s chancellery office, as “an internationally recognized expert of great experience.” Meanwhile, an independent statement from a group of DFFB lecturers hailed Gibson as “an outstanding personality of European filmmaking (…) who is befitting of the importance of the DFFB for Berlin and German filmmaking.”

The man himself was just as enthusiastic about his new job. “I’m honored and delighted to be joining the DFFB,” he said in the school’s statement. “Until now I was an outside admirer of its special traditions and its powerful creativity; inside the academy I will have a lot to learn and plenty of passion and experience to contribute.”

Sacrificing creativity for ‘market orientation’

But the vote was not unanimous – according to a letter released by the DFFB’s student body, both student representatives on the six-person commission voted against Gibson, while a vote among students found that he was the least popular candidate, gathering only 8 of 130 votes.

The letter said students were concerned that Gibson’s plans for the school included cutting study time and making evaluation, rather than nurturing creative freedom, part of the academy’s system. “From what we have learned about Ben Gibson during the process, he stands among other things for certain serious principles that we consider highly problematic,” the student body said in a letter. “The studies will mainly come under the watchwords efficiency, competition, and market orientation.”

Gibson, who the DFFB said is not giving interviews before he takes up the position officially in February, produced a string of independent British films in the 1980s and 1990s before taking over the directorship of the London Film School, which he ran for 13 years. The DFFB, meanwhile, is considered one of the most influential schools in German cinema, with alumni including Christian Petzold, the director of celebrated films like “Barbara,” Lars Kraume, director of the recent “The People vs. Fritz Bauer” and, of a previous generation, Wolfgang Petersen, director of the classic war movie “Das Boot.”

As a small academy, rather than a major film school, it is often renowned for offering students independence from German state TV networks and other backers, who often determine which projects get financed.

‘Rules will make you free’

“It was a disappointment,” a student at the DFFB, who preferred to remain anonymous, told DW, “The students are just starting to come to terms with it.”

“His whole vocabulary was about competition – market competence, even inside the academy – all about who was successful, who should be pushed,” she said. “The idea was that students would be encouraged to be market-oriented.”

The student also criticized Gibson’s artistic approach, encapsulated in a statement he made during the application process: “Rules will make you free.” “Of course there are rules and they are useful,” she said. “But that is not reason for our creativity, that isn’t our inspiration, and that isn’t what frees us. For me that’s the wrong approach.”

“Why is he coming to the academy, when no one here supports his ideas – that’s what we don’t understand,” the student said. “It’s not about Ben Gibson personally – it’s about his approach.”

A missed auteur

The highest-profile opposing candidate, and winner of the student vote, was Hungarian director Bela Tarr, who has taught at the school before. The international respect the multi-award-winning auteur gained through independent classics such as “Satantango” and “The Turin Horse” caught the imagination of the students. Many believe the school has missed an opportunity to bring one of world cinema’s most celebrated directors to Berlin permanently.

At a meeting last Friday, Gibson promised to enter a dialogue with the students over the next two months, before he officially takes on the role in February.

“In Germany we have the problem that we have the [film schools] HFF Munich, we have Ludwigsburg – and they are very regimented, very market-oriented, and they are very successful and that’s good,” the student said. “But to have yet another place that works in exactly the same way – I don’t know if we really need that, and I think the DFFB will just make itself superfluous. This is a unique place where that freedom exists.”