His DDR T-Shirt

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“Everyone assumes that life in the GDR was bleak, grey and utterly depressing. But I could show you parts of my hometown Manchester that look exactly the same.”

If you have ever been to a tourist attraction in Berlin you most likely have encountered  the numerous peddlers of souvenirs from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). Anything from miniature Lenin busts to the ubiquitous hammer and sickle flags can be had for a couple of Euros. For most of us, these objects are merely remnants of a lost Empire we have only heard about.   When filmmaker Ian Hawkins first purchased a GDR t-shirt he felt compelled to learn more about how life really was on the other side of wall.

Mike Trupiano: You made a doc which I thought was great called My DDR T-Shirt. Why did you make it? What was it about?

Ian Hawkins: The idea behind My DDR T-Shirt was really simple – I was visiting Berlin for the first time in 2005. It fascinated me. Trying to understand what was East and what was West got me hooked on the city. I bought a DDR T-shirt as a bit of a joke souvenir idea. I realised that East Germany was more than just a silly idea to lots of people. Whether good or bad, those symbols and national emblems meant something. I felt I couldn’t really wear the t-shirt without learning a bit more. So, I pledged to myself that I would come back with my little DV camcorder and just ask people.

MT: What did you learn by making the film?

Ian Hawkins with ex-Stasi agent Johnny Tarver who he interviewed for the documentary.
Ian Hawkins with ex-Stasi agent Johnny Tarver who he interviewed for the documentary.

IH: I learned a lot – about East Germany and about making a film too. A big thing to learn was how influential Western propaganda still is. Everyone assumes that life in the GDR was bleak, grey and utterly depressing. But I could show you parts of my hometown Manchester that look exactly the same.

I also learned that it’s very hard to read anything about East Germany that isn’t written from a Western viewpoint (in English, at least) so I tried my best to be fair. I still get emails about the film, most commonly from former East Germans – they seem to appreciate an outsider’s point of view. They know what life was like in East Germany – they know what problems the country had – but they get sick of their past being caricatured as somehow inferior to other peoples.’ Some of the East German women I talked to, spoke really highly of things like childcare in the GDR. You don’t hear that very much so I tried to put it in the film. Yep, I learned a lot.

Erika 1
Erika Kammer

MT: Do former citizens miss the DDR?

IH: I don’t think many people miss the GDR. Not really. Perhaps some people feel nostalgic for that time in their life? But even if they were living in a 21st century East Germany, they’d still look back nostalgically.

We all can probably agree that our current system is far from perfect. There were some aspects of life that were better in the GDR. There’s a moment in the film when Erika Kammer expresses how sad it is that nothing good from East Germany was kept and nothing bad from West Germany was left behind.

East Germany just disappeared. Imagine that. In the space of a year, whether you love it or hate it, your country is gone. 

MT: As a child, I was always fascinated by the surreal nature of East Berlin – a veritable prison state. Was the DDR a long time interest of yours or did it spring from a trip to Berlin?

IH: It wasn’t a long time interest. I didn’t know whether it was a prison state. Though part of the Western portrayal (mentioned above) was always about oppression and border guards with guns. Maybe part of the interest was that I grew up in the 70s and 80s and was terrified of nuclear war. I was genuinely scared of the end of the world and that it could happen at any moment. Russia and the Eastern Bloc were supposed to be enemies but I didn’t see why. Learning about East Germany was perhaps my way to go back and humanize all that Cold War craziness.

MT: Where are you from and what did you do before making films? Did you study film? What doc makers/film makers would you say inspired you? Are you from a family of actors/artists?

IH: I’m from Manchester in England. There aren’t any actors or artists in the family. At least not that I know of. I suppose I was always the daydreamer – the one with my head in the clouds and thinking about stuff.

The first thing for me was music. I played in bands for a long time and loved the creative process – learning how to write songs, record them and get better as a band. That was great.

I didn’t study film and had no experience of filmmaking. I just bought the cheapest DV camera on sale back in 2004 and wanted to find things to document or record. My DDR T-Shirt was made on that camera and with a halogen light from Aldi. That was pretty much it.

I was really inspired by Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I. She confirmed that you can make a real film with a cheap digital camera. Just find an interesting subject, get out there and make it.

I was also amazed by Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (The Celebration). It’s not a documentary but as part of the Dogme 95 movement, it used hand held digital equipment. It really looked like digital video of the time but was just as cinematic as anything else you could see. That was very encouraging.

MT: Why and when did you move to Berlin? Do you see it as a temporary home for you or long term? Do you like the changes you see in Berlin (if any) since you’ve been here?

IH: The move to Berlin was really down to that first visit in 2005 but it took another six years to actually move over here. I could’ve fallen in love with Paris but couldn’t afford the rents there – I suppose it was lucky in that respect. I fell for a capital city I could afford to move to. And we always felt at home here. I don’t know why but we do.

Ian Hawkins at Checkpoint Charlie.
Ian Hawkins at Checkpoint Charlie.

It was a short-term plan to move here. We didn’t know whether we could support ourselves, so we only committed to a six-month rental contract. Since then, we’ve been able to earn just enough to stay here to renew for another six months at a time. I’m not sure what will happen when the current six months expires. That’s a question that never quite goes away.

When we moved here, we had two days to find an apartment. We would’ve happily lived anywhere in Berlin. Moving here felt like a privilege so any Kiez would do. Amongst others, we were offered a place in Tegel. It was the best place we saw, it had good connections into the city and some really nice places to explore. We’ve been here ever since and love it.

Some of Berlin’s problems (like gentrification) aren’t really an issue here. It’s a hipster-free zone and there aren’t many cool people around here. Of course, costs have increased since getting here but it’s a very different place to Berlin’s more popular districts.

Although gentrification is a real issue, and it’s changing the city, we’re all contributing to it. For me, I would’ve moved anywhere just to live in Berlin. Kreuzberg would’ve been great, Marzahn would’ve been fine and Tegel has been fantastic.

Some of the most creative places in the world have emerged out of nothing more than affordable rents – that’s what artists need to pursue their thing. If rents are going up, find a place you can afford and make a new scene. A big part of our move here was to pursue a creative life – not a cool life. I really don’t want to criticize anyone but maybe some people forget the difference? But if you live on a great street and you see it slipping away, that’s just horrible.

MT: What’s your next project?

I’m working to get a film about whistleblowers funded. It’ll be the first time I’ve gone down the ‘funded’ route – rather than ‘self-funded/no-budget.’ The film concentrates on what it feels like to make a stand on a matter of conscience – the sleepless nights, the isolation, the paranoia, the risk of losing your job…or worse. Everyone believes in right and wrong but most people choose self-preservation over speaking out. We’ve interviewed some incredibly brave whistleblowers and the film is about why they did it and what it did to their lives.

I’ve also just finished a new documentary called A Nuclear Family. It was a very tough and challenging personal project but it’s finished and looking for an audience. The film is about family, growing up, marriage and divorce – so it’s another big topic! It’s generated some amazingly touching and thought-provoking audience responses but it’s just at the start of its indie-distribution journey. You can watch it for free at www.anuclearfamily.co.uk – I’m hoping to organize lots of screenings so if anyone is interested in helping out, I’d be pleased to hear from them.

You can also watch My DDR T-Shirt for free or purchase the DVD at www.myddrtshirt.co.uk. 

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