photo © Gerd Altmann/ Geralt/ pixabay
photo © Gerd Altmann/ Geralt/ pixabay

DIVERSITY IN GERMAN FILMMAKING #3 – TV stations, screenwriters’ and dramaturges’ associations

Last year, German Films set itself the task of assessing the German film and television scene in regard to efforts towards more diversity and the desire for reform in the industry. With this purpose in mind, a separate survey with a comprehensive catalogue of topics was launched at many different institutions. In the previous two issues of GFQ, the standpoints of agencies, casting associations and universities have already been examined in more detail, and the results of the online survey of the alliance #VielfaltImFilm (diversity in film) also presented. 6000 filmmakers from 440 professions took part in this survey. Many complained about experiencing a lack of inclusion, as well as discrimination in front of and behind the camera.

The will of all those involved is clear, reverberating at least as lip service: More diversity! But what sounds so easy is a difficult topic in the German entertainment industry today. For the current issue, German Films contacted TV stations, and associations of screenwriters and dramaturges on the subject, asking them to have their say. How do you get more gender equality, more colour, more participation, more perspectives into moving images – and show fewer stereotypes? Perhaps by having a gay protagonist confronted by all kinds of prejudices about his supposedly family-unfriendly, wild existence, shout out: “I wish everyone would party, flirt and fuck more!”

Certainly, that is what happens in the series ALL YOU NEED, produced by the historically first German TV channel, ARD. This public broadcaster, like so many comparable ones in Europe, is financed by licence fees and consequently bears the weight of a noble obligation, a social mandate.

When ARD launches a dramedy series like ALL YOU NEED, which is about four gay men in Berlin, it’s worth talking about in Germany, not yet something that can be taken for granted. Christoph Pellander, the editorial director of ARD‘s own production company Degeto, explains in the follow-up: “Our new series, planned primarily as a media library offering, addresses a younger audience for the first time, and in an episodic format that is new to us. In five 20-minute episodes, we tell the varied stories of our four protagonists: diverse and edgy, modern and with a finger on the pulse of the times.”

The second German TV channel, ZDF, is trying its hand at something comparable. Recently, it not only put an “instant fiction series” entitled LOVING HER into its media library, but also broadcast the programme on its special interest channel ZDFneo. Each of the six episodes is up to 15 minutes long and peppered with topical references. The focus is on Hanna. Because of Covid-19, she can‘t find a job after graduating. She is forced to move back in with her parents and recapitulates what has happened so far in her life; to be more precise in her love life, with all the women who have influenced her so much.

The author of LOVING HER, the adaptation of a Dutch series, is Marlene Melchior. “When I myself first fell in love with a girl as a teenager, I missed series, stories and narratives about queer women and their lives,” she says. “Beyond novels, I often found it hard to identify with the portrayal of characters and their relationships in mainstream media.” So now she has the opportunity to approach things differently. Her main char­acter Hanna has been cast by director Leonie Krippendorff with German-Iranian actress, Banafshe Hourmazdi.

ZDF also responded to German Films‘ catalogue of questions and took a very differentiated and self-critical position, including on the question of any unspoken difficulties that its own institution struggles with. “Occupied management positions remain occupied,” it says. Where there is little fluctuation, young, diverse and female people get very few opportunities. In addition, high demands on formal qualifications are often exclusion criteria, making it difficult for anyone with a more unconventional biography.

Nevertheless, change is emerging in many places in traditional German television. In the cosmos of the German crime thriller icon, TATORT, for example, which has been airing in Germany‘s living rooms for four decades of Sundays now. In the latest TATORT episode produced by NDR (the ARD regional office of the North German Broadcasting Corporation) with the working title SCHATTENLEBEN (SHADOW LIFE), a so-called inclusion rider was used for the first time. The initiative came from director, Mia Spengler. She is a frequent advocate for the issue of diversity – and not only in the numerous panel discussions held on the subject at industry events. The aim of the inclusion rider concept, which originated in Hollywood, is to work with as diverse a cast and crew as possible.

The state broadcasters of Bavarian and Hessian Broadcasting, BR and hr, also participated in the German Films survey. In 2014, Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) signed the “Diversity Charter”, a voluntary commitment to promote diversity and tolerance, fairness and appreciation of all people in working life. BR regards monitoring as an important way to live up to this pretension: In the programming field of feature film series, therefore, characters are collected on the ratio of female to male protagonists. This applies to all continuous formats, fictional as well as documentary, including the Bavarian daily series DAHOAM IS DAHOAM, the portrait series LEBENSLINIEN and the weekly cinema programme KINOKINO. Indicating their efforts to promote diversity and intersectionality, they point proudly to early feature film co-productions such as TRANSPAPA or the old people‘s flat-sharing comedy WIR SIND DIE NEUEN.

This year, BR won the Civis Prize with its TV film HERREN. This prize rewards examples of integration and diversity in the media. Films were submitted from more than 20 European countries. In HERREN, all three protagonists are POC, people of colour. Meanwhile, BR also outlines how it intends to achieve more gender equality behind the camera: in eight-part series, for example, men and women take equal turns on the director‘s chair, so that four episodes are directed by women and four by men.

The Hessian Broadcasting Corporation (hr) signed the “Diversity Charter” in 2019. It has established a “diversity management” and in­scribed the goal “younger, more diverse, more digital” into its corporate vision. The management also decided in 2019 to use gender-equal language in the company, and in early 2021 to use it in their programmes. The selection procedure for traineeships has been adapted by hr, and it participates in the initiative “Klischeefrei” (stereotype-free) for open development in the profession. In addition, the station points out that it employs twice as many people with disabilities as the statutory quota requires.

But hr also recognises some difficulties: “The simultaneity of many current transformation processes” is affecting the media sector as much as any other: The exponential changes in technology and media behaviour, the multitude of new playout channels, the dismantling of hierarchical thinking. All these changes are also leading to an increase in uncertainties. In turn, this fosters defensive reactions. hr‘s answers to the German Films survey point out that this is also true in face of efforts for more diversity. However, the majority of its employees are still very interested in the topic.

Even if the social mandate of private and pay-TV broadcasters is less clearly formulated than that of the public broadcasters, they also acknowl­edge an obligation when it comes to diversity. And they are aware – by their very definition – of the economic potential of the topic. Elke Walthelm, Executive Vice President Content of Sky & Man­aging Director NBC Universal Global Networks Germany, for example, says: “Along a clearly defined roadmap and with our pop-up channels on focal points, it is our goal to raise more awareness for topics such as LGBTQAI+, strong women, age or racism. In addition, we want to reflect diversity more strongly in our own productions in future, for example in the composition of their casts, and to define clear guidelines in this respect when purchasing external content. Of course, we are still at the beginning in some aspects.”

The newer the player on the German television market, the more self-evidently the topic of diversity appears to be integrated into the corporate concept. The streaming platform Joyn, which also produces its own content, was launched in 2019. Joyn works with a “code of conduct” that regulates how its employees treat each other as well as their efforts to create appropriate content. However, the company occasionally finds itself in conflict with the market in the entertainment sector. Content as suitable for the masses as possible, with high TV ratings and call-up figures, is set against content currently more likely to be found in the arthouse sector: explicitly diverse, for example. Established concepts and names are often still used because of a supposedly lower economic risk.

Because this mechanism is universally known, many filmmakers see the public broadcasters, mainly financed by quasi-taxes, as having an obligation in matters of diversity. Some, including the private TV competition, would like to see more than voluntary declarations of intent from these state-funded broadcasters. But in its German Films survey the German Screenwriters Association (VDD) sums up what the creative scene thinks about too much regulation: “Obligation sounds very coercive. Voluntariness goes down better with creatives. Checklists may provide food for thought regarding diversity, but they are only an indirect and very formal impulse for the actual challenge on the part of the authors.” Diversity can only come via long-term expansion of the narrative radius – and if the corsets of the fixed television formats that currently have to be implemented are loosened. Because this is how what was once different, crazy, wild and deviant is often made to fit in.

In order to break this vicious circle of expectations and creatives‘ ability to adapt, the industry is attempting to help itself. Authors and the ARD meet for “dialogue platforms”, for example, hosting a search for new approaches. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has also put the brakes on positive approaches, the authors complain. It is especially important to revive them now. The VDD is campaigning intensively for an amendment to funding for the development of new material. This is because in Germany, even in the cinema sector, it is so much influenced by the TV broadcasters.

It is obvious how much the pandemic and its effects have hit the industry. Not least if you take a look at the schedule of an institution like the Association for Film and Television Dramaturgy VeDRA. This association – also interviewed by German Films – had to postpone its “Film Material Development Day” in 2020 to November 2021 and hopes it can be realised on this new date. But the current summer issue of the association‘s own magazine, “Wendepunkt”, already focuses on the ever-present theme: “Diversity in the development of material”. The fact that the dramaturges have already dealt extensively with the key facets of their leitmotif is emphasised by their reference to the many blind spots still existing on the thematic charts of German film and television: “Homeless people, old people, also older migrant women, people with low incomes or those who live in the urban peripheries, enlightened people who are nevertheless religious” – all these and many more would have stories to offer that are as yet untold or at least far too infrequently.

This (market) gap should not be open for much longer in Germany, therefore. At least this is what we may hope. Start-ups like the “Office for Diverse Storytelling” aim to advocate such progress. The two authors Leticia Milano and Johanna Faltinat launched the project in 2019. Since then, they have been offering training, lectures and dramaturgical advice for creatives. And so, in the best-case scenario, the rigidities of the film and television world are being loosened in several places: in the broadcasting stations, among the promoters, the makers, and the viewers them­selves.

In the next issue of GFQ, which will be published in autumn, this development will be monitored further. We will also be presenting the answers given by directors’ and producers‘ associations as well as film funders to German Films’ catalogue of questions.

Susanne Hermanski