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Germany’s ‘Brown Babies’

INTERVIEW: actor and director Volker Meyer-Dabisch. The movie interweaves the lives of two of Germany’s so-called ‘brown babies’ – Afro-Germans born in the early 1950s, a topic so far without much exposure.

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While actor and director Volker Meyer-Dabisch was filming his last documentary, Der Adel vom Görli (2009), about Kreuzberg’s Görlitzer Park, he became well-acquainted with many of the park’s regulars.

Following a recent murder in the park (not covered by the press), he got talking to a witness, and the idea for Open Souls was conceived.

The most ambitious of his documentaries so far, and filmed partly in London, the movie interweaves the lives of two of Germany’s so-called ‘brown babies’ – Afro-Germans born in the early 1950s – using monologue and scenes from the protagonists’ every day lives to show the far-reaching effects of politically misguided decisions taken half a century ago.

Is it fair to say that your films respond to the place in which you live: Berlin, and in particular, Kreuzberg?

That’s definitely the case. I think it was Agnes Varda who once said that you should check out what’s happening on your doorstep before you start rooting around for world-shattering topics.

That’s why I like these subjects. They are, literally, close to me. I find it exciting to keep my eyes open and see what’s going on.

My first documentary dealt with a local coal shop. Der Adel vom Görli was another neighbourhood film. After we’d wrapped that film, there was an incident in Görlitzer Park in which a woman was killed. Talking to one of the witnesses, Alberto, I found out that he had an interesting story of his own to tell and took it from there.

There were over 3000 babies of mixed racial origin born in Germany in the early 1950s, but for a long time, it was treated as a very dirty secret. How did you find the other protagonist, Rudi?

I researched the topic on the internet and found an article about him. It was a story that started like Alberto’s before going off on a completely different trajectory. But the origins were the same: born as racially mixed children, adopted or fostered, and subjected to terrible abuse.

It took me a while to find Rudi, via the Salvation Army here in Berlin, before I finally located him in London. I rang him, told him about my project. He was interested, so I went over, we met up, talked and the film developed from there.

In the film, there is no off-commentary on what Alberto and Rudi are saying. They are left to tell their stories, leaving us to draw our own conclusions.

I never use off-commentary in my films. I want the protagonists to tell their stories. In this case, the stories are complex. I tried to make them easier to understand by editing, concentrating on certain aspects: early and severe childhood abuse, what it does to a person. Comments are superfluous.

The film is for the protagonists – not for me. The message is simply that these stories haven’t been told before and now that they are being told, they need to be first-hand and direct.

I left some things out. Alberto, for example, talks about his sister. He also told me about a brother, another Afro-German child he thinks was murdered. I’m sure he’s right, but as I can’t prove it I’ve concentrated on what happened to the two main characters. It’s more than enough.

What kind of feedback have you been getting?

Rudi’s daughters in America have called to say that the film is good, that this story needs to be told. The Afro-American community is keen to get all this out in the open.

And the strange thing is that after 60 years of silence, another documentary has just come out on the same topic: Brown Babies [Regina Griffin, 2010].

Then there’s a third filmmaker, Michaela Kirst, who’s been in touch with Rudi because she wants to make a documentary on the subject. I’m also in touch with a woman who is writing her PhD on the subject. It’s crazy, this synchronicity of events.

Unlike many people who can’t deal with not knowing exactly who they are, or where they came from, your characters seem to have found some peace of mind.

It was important for me to show that people can come through these kinds of experience. Rudi is a fantastic example. He’s so positive. I don’t want people to leave the film thinking, “poor guys”. I know a lot of people with problems. This film shows that it’s possible to get over problems, find your path. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. Both of them, Alberto and Rudi, are evidence of this.

Right at the end, you abandon your directorial policy of non-intervention by showing Rudi and Alberto playing frisbee together, bridging the distance between Berlin and London. It’s a good device, but it is a device.

I wanted to create some kind of connection between the two. It’s there anyhow, but it had to be strong. Somehow, it reflects the fact that they were actually born in the same prison in Bavaria and delivered by the same midwife. An incredible coincidence and something I only found out during filming. So they felt like brothers to me and I just took the liberty of establishing this bond using the frisbee. It’s so obviously set up that I thought I could get away with it.

Open Souls opens in Berlin on December 15. Check our OV Film Search for show times.