Friday, June 22, 2007

House of World Stereotypes

Note to self: Stop trying to accomplish anything here, stop trying to do good things for people here, save your energy and use it to get the hell out of here.

Details: Last year a couple of filmmakers in the States made a wonderful, if harrowing, film called Bound to Lose about the folk duo the Holy Modal Rounders, who changed my life in 1964 with their first album. They consisted of Peter Stampfel (fiddle, banjo, vocals) and Steve Weber (guitar, vocals), and were so far out there that they used the word "psychedelic" in one of their songs -- recorded in 1963! (I thought the word was "psycho-belly," but jeez, I was 15.)

The world of documentaries isn't an easy one, so if you want your film to get seen you have to enter a lot of festivals and do a lot of screenings. Thus, they're participating in the Rotterdam Film Festival in mid-September and bringing Peter along to perform, and, upon hearing this, I wondered if they were thinking of doing a screening in Berlin. Then it hit me: this was when PopKomm, the huge music conference, hits town, and, of course, so do the guys who run SXSW in Austin. Now, SXSW has a film conference, too, so I thought that a screening followed by a Stampfel show under the aegis of SXSW would be good for all concerned: SXSW gets to promote SXSW Film, the filmmakers get to promote their film, and Peter gets to introduce himself to a new audience.

So along with a friend, I started working on this after getting SXSW's blessing. Wow, an actual fun event during PopKomm! Never mind that not too many people would come: it would have a lot of competition. The theater we were thinking of for the film only holds about 100 people, and the bar across the way from it where we were going to do the show only holds about 40. But we'd be handing out flyers at the SXSW stand at PopKomm, and publicity is publicity.

Then Peter said that he was going to play a folk festival here and the promoters had forbidden him to perform so close to that event. Further investigation turned up the fact that it was part of a concert series in the House of World Cultures' New York program, which opens in August and runs through November. The HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt) is a mighty institution in Berlin, funded by the federal government to expose Germans to foreign cultures, and very often their exhibitions and concert series are superb: I've enjoyed many of them in my years here.

Peter passed along the name of the woman at the HKW he was dealing with, and I recognized her as someone I'd dealt with myself when working for the Wall Street Journal in the past. Peter was due to perform several weeks later, and it really didn't seem to me that our tiny show would hurt theirs. So I wrote her a letter (names have been changed to spare the guilty):

Dear Ms. X:

My name is Ed Ward, and I'm a freelance journalist here in Berlin. I think we've run into each other over the years, possibly through WOMEX or when I was the cultural correspondent for the Wall St. Journal here.

I'm writing you because in another capacity, as a representative of the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas. I'm setting up a screening of a film about the Holy Modal Rounders as part of SXSW's presence at PopKomm this year. The screening will be held in a small cinema in Berlin-Mitte, and we were hoping to have a short performance by Peter afterwards.

Peter has informed us that you have asked him not to perform at this show because of a perceived conflict with an event at the HKW in October. He will be coming to Europe anyway at this time for a screening/performance in Rotterdam, and this is why we decided to set this up.

I'm asking if you could reconsider this prohibition. Peter is not very well known here, and this event could only build the audience for your event. Furthermore, he would be mentioning your event during his show, which could only help publicize it. The filmmakers are planning to go through with the screening in any event, but we feel that because the venue we've selected for the show is very small -- with a capacity of only around 40 people -- and because Peter will be in Europe anyway, it would be a shame not to take advantage of his presence and put on a short show which, as I said, could only enhance the visibility of your own, much higher-profile and better-publicized event.

If Peter were a superstar, or even a major cult figure, in Germany, I could certainly understand your position, as Peter has explained it. But we anticipate the largest part of our audience to be the Fachpublikum [*] who will be attending PopKomm, many of whom are not from Berlin (although the screening and the show will be open to the general public), and for many of these people it will be the only chance they get to see the film and Peter.

I'm hoping you can think about this and perhaps we can work out a solution that will be advantageous for both our small show and your (I hope!) bigger one.

With Friendly Regards,

Ed Ward

[* The word Fachpublikum doesn't translate into English easily, but it indicates a specialty or professional audience.]

And so, except for the fact that the mail bounced back because Peter had spelled her name wrong, and one of the filmmakers finally found her on the HKW website (I still can't find her there!), the thing went off as you see it above. "Your letter seems incredibly reasonable," one of the filmmakers said. Yeah, well.

Yesterday in the late afternoon I got the answer:

Dear Ed,

thank you very much for your mail to Ms. X. We appreciate your initiative to show the film about Peter Stampfel during Popkomm very much. Unfortunately we must insist on our conditions that he should not perform before his show at House of World Cultures in Berlin. Even if the cinema is small. As you also underline, Peter Stampfel ist not so well-known in Berlin, so his audience is also small. A show during popkomm would be less then 3 weeks before our concert. And we really want to be the fist ones who bring him here these days.
As for popkomm visitors: we are not sure how many will come to the cinema, don't expect too much of them.

Of course we would be very grateful if you mentioned the coming concert at House of World Cultures at the end of your film screening. We can also mention your screening at our website for instance.

Thank you very much for your cooperation.

Best regards,

Ms. X's Boss
cc: Grand Poobah, HKW

In other words, we have rules which are not bound by logic. Rules are rules and Ordnung muss sein. We said no, and thus we cannot be flexible. As for PopKomm, you know nothing about it (despite my having participated in just about every one of them since it started in Cologne). You don't know what you're doing, and we do, so stop.

Oh: please give us publicity.

Well, to hell with that. As of this moment, SXSW has pulled out, the filmmakers are going to Glasgow instead (I think), and a situation from which every one of the participants could benefit has been nullified. And, once again, official Germany has shown itself to be rigid, inflexible, uncreative, and self-defeating.

No, not everyone here is like that. Just the people who run things. No wonder the country has a brain drain.

And I have to remind myself: stop trying to accomplish anything here. You're just a stupid foreigner and your efforts are not appreciated or wanted. Use your energy to get out and start again somewhere else.


Anonymous said...

Use your energy to get out and start again somewhere else. Like, in Montpellier, where you'll still be a foreigner ;-)

Anonymous said...


that just serves you rightly trying to you say..."sloppy seconds" from the people who want to be "fist ones"...