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When German Films launched its major survey on diversity involving dozens of German film and television institutions a year and a half ago, the industry activists were the first to talk to. They vividly described experiences of discrimination and disadvantage – in the order situation, on film sets, and in the type of roles offered. Representatives of Black Filmmakers (Lamin Leroy Gibba, Denise Ekale Kurn, Benita Bailey and Marie Noel), the LGBTQ+ community (Kai S. Pieck for the Queer Media Society), people with disabilities (Wolfgang Janssen for the Rollenfang agency) and women in the industry (Cornelia de Andrés for Pro Quote Film and Cornelia Köhler for WIFTG – Women in Film and Television Germany) unanimously reported an unsatisfactory, often frustrating current state of affairs.

They all called for more visibility and participation, proportionate to social realities. On the way to achieving this, they agreed that among other things, more awareness-raising panels at industry events and broad public discussions could help. One and a half years later, in March 2022, such an event took place in a prominent location: at the Evangelische Akademie (“Protestant Academy“) in Tutzing, where many of the Federal Republic’s key debates have already taken play. “Seeing and being seen: Participation in Film“ was the title of the conference organised together with Filmfest München, and co-financed by the Bavarian Film Fund.

The wording of the event announcement already led us to expect some emotional discussion: “Things are seething in front of and behind the cameras“. “Whose dream are we talking about when the film industry styles itself as a dream factory? What ideals are being conveyed, what realities and identification models are being shaped, and who is allowed to have a say in this?“ Many of the individuals and institutions interviewed by German Films were represented. Right at the start, Prof. Dr. Elizabeth Prommer from the University of Rostock presented results from her “Progress Study on Audiovisual Diversity in Cinema“. This in-depth analysis covered an investigation period extending from the previous study in 2017 to the winter of 2020. The study was again launched together with the MaLisa Foundation of Maria and Elisabeth Furtwängler and their partner institutions./p>

Prommer‘s results scientifically confirmed what was already known as “perceived truth“ in many personal accounts of people’s experiences. Stereotypical images continue to prevail. Up until 2020, for example, women were primarily visualised as young, slim, white, heterosexual characters mainly interested in relationship problems. Even though women are now visible as protagonists almost as often as men, they continue to be given less di­verse roles. This applies to their sexual orientation as well as to their origin or intact bodies.

For example, while about ten per cent of the population are homosexual, pre-2020 lesbian women appeared on screen at only one per cent, while gay men were at least represented at four per cent.The one-dimensionality of female roles was particularly prominent in productions directed by men, Prommer explained. In other ways, too, the composition of the team behind the camera demonstrably influences the diversity of the storylines. Another statistic illustrated the discrepancy between lived reality and scenarios depicted in film: 26 per cent of the population in Germany has a migration history, but in movies this was the case for only 15 per cent of all their protagonists up until 2020.

What this latest MaLisa study does not yet reflect is the period after 2020, which could be a turning point. The international movement against racism, Black Lives Matter, that started in 2020 and has led to changes, as the German Films survey on diversity also indicated. Especially where state funding is involved, regulations for the promotion of diversity are implemented almost everywhere in Germany today. Nevertheless, as actor Thelma Buabeng made clear at the Protestant Academy in Tutzing, there is still a long way to go. In the past, as a black female actor, she mainly received offers of roles as refugees, maids or slaves. Now she can play a lawyer or a teacher. But there are still formats that reproduce prejudices and racism. And they are always “a slap in the face“.

Susanne Hermanski