“Our focus on the development process has been the secret of our success,“ says producer Arne Birkenstock, looking back at the 12 years of activities since founding Cologne-based Fruitmarket Arts & Media in 2004. The documentary as a genre had dominated his work in the film industry even before he set up his production company as he had already started directing TV documentaries for the UNTER DEUTSCHEN DÄCHERN and MENSCHEN HAUTNAH series whilst still studying at university. In 1999, he collaborated with André Schäfer on the award-winning documentary MAN SIEHT JA MIT DEN OHREN – ÜBER DEN FUSSBALLWAHNSINN SAMSTAGS IM RADIO.
“I launched the company to produce my first feature documentary 12 TANGOS – ADIOS BUENOS AIRES,“ recalls the 50-year-old who studied at universities in Cologne and Argentina and is an accomplished accordion player. This first film, one of four co-produced with Cologne-based production company Tradewind Pictures (the other three being CHANDANI, SOUND OF HEIMAT and BELTRACCHI), spent over a year in German cinemas in 2005 with just seven copies and clocked up more than 40,000 admissions.
During the first few years, Birkenstock concentrated on producing his own projects as director: CHANDANI – DAUGHTER OF THE ELEPHANT WHISPERER followed in 2010 and went on to win the 2011 German Film Award for Best Children’s Film, while the 2012 film SOUND OF HEIMAT – GERMANY SINGS, a documentary road movie with the New Zealand musician Hayden Chisholm exploring the German phenomenon of Volksmusik, was made in collaboration with fellow director Jan Tengeler.
Birkenstock picked up another Lola statuette for Best Documentary in 2014 for the internationally acclaimed documentary BELTRACCHI – THE ART OF FORGERY about the art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi who fooled the art market for almost 40 years and successfully produced newly invented masterpieces of classical modernists.
Although Birkenstock still harbors ambitions to direct if the right project comes along and he can find sufficient time from his busy schedule as a producer, Fruitmarket has focused in recent years on producing films by other directors as well as being open to third party projects.
Thus, he has collaborated with Lola-winning documentary filmmaker Uli Gauke on two projects – THE SHOW MUST GO ON about a retirement home in Hollywood and CENTURY OF WOMEN portraying the lives of four remarkable ladies who have all now turned 100 – and with the Swiss theater director Milo Rau on THE MOSCOW TRIALS and THE CONGO TRIBUNAL as well as with Yasemin and Nesrin Samdereli on their latest project THE NIGHT OF ALL NIGHTS about five couples from Germany, Turkey, India, USA and Brazil, who have all celebrated their 50th or 60th wedding anniversary together.
“One can’t really speak of a common thematic thread running through all of our projects,“ Birkenstock suggests. “On the one hand, there’s a film like SOUND OF HEIMAT about German Volksmusik or CHANDANI about a little girl in Sri Lanka, and you have films which are clearly political like the two with Milo Rau or an entertaining documentary like THE NIGHT OF ALL NIGHTS. What they have in common is that we take our time in the development so that we can then get the right size budgets because we produce for the international market,“ he observes.
“When I go to the markets like the EFM, IDFA or Hot Docs, I have tended to have target meetings with potential partners and commissioning editors to discuss projects rather than getting caught up in the pitching forums.“ However, the introduction of new blood into the company in the person of the junior producer Merle Rueffer is likely to see Fruitmarket changing its approach somewhat. “Merle took part in the EURODOC program and is now bringing co-production projects to the company thanks to this network, and she will be more active in visiting the different markets for documentaries in the future.“
“Moreover, another development in the company will see it exploring the opportunities of transmedia and interactive projects after the experiences gained by creative producer Sebastian Lemke who worked on the multiplatform narratives for THE CONGO TRIBUNAL.
Rau’s film received its world premiere in Locarno last summer and was then invited to DOK Leipzig for the international premiere where a transmedia exhibition to accompany the film was presented for the first time. Some 3,000 festival guests visited the exhibition and experienced the VR installation, the game WITNESS J and discovered the web archive where the hearings in Bukavu and Berlin can be accessed.
THE CONGO TRIBUNAL, which brought together the main protagonists and analysts of the Congo War in Bukavu and one month later in Berlin for a large, three-day civil tribunal, is described by Birkenstock as “the biggest challenge to date“ for his young company. “It was the most complex project we’ve done: in the editing, we had 40 talking heads and no main character, and what’s more we financed and produced an interactive web project as well as the film, and then organized a tour of the film through the troubled region of Eastern Congo and then in Germany and Switzerland. But I am very satisfied how everything turned out.“
This year has now seen the film screen in Rotterdam at the end of January and invitations from other international festivals are likely to be making their way to Fruitmarket’s Cologne office. But “the most striking“ outcome for Birkenstock is that an international group of lawyers, experts and human rights activists will now use the film as a model to establish regional tribunals in the DRC in order to document, negotiate and process at least some of the countless crimes from the ongoing civil war in the region.
Together with Milo Rau he even founded the NGO “Doctivism“ in order to raise money for this ambitious project. In addition, the film has been selected to the German Film Academy’s shortlist for the documentary category and will be screened during the Berlinale in the Lola@Berlinale sidebar for accredited professionals.
Apart from writing books on film and music and serving on funding committees, Birkenstock has also become more involved in the ongoing debate about film policy in Germany through his position as a board member of the German Film Academy for the documentary sector. In autumn 2016, he initiated a think tank at the Film Academy to discuss possible solutions to the crisis facing documentaries and new models for funding the development, financing, production and distribution of documentaries.
“The Film Academy is the ideal forum for such an initiative to bring people together with different positions and agendas and encourage them to have an open exchange of views,“ he suggests. “Here was a chance to think outside of the box and initiate some new channels of thought rather than coming up with the usual demands as seen from the position of a trade association. Moreover, the discussion wasn’t just limited to the documentary genre because we realize that these issues affect the arthouse film overall.“
In the meantime, Birkenstock has his hands full with the theatrical distribution and festival career of THE CONGO TRIBUNAL; the release in March of THE NIGHT OF ALL NIGHTS; as well as the completion of two new documentaries – Uli Gaulke’s THE SHOW MUST GO ON and MAMACITA by José Pablo Estrasa Torrescano. Financing has been closed on Gaulke’s next feature documentary CENTURY OF WOMEN which will begin shooting later this year, while development funding was granted at the end of last year by for Enrique Sánchez Lansch’s POL POT DANCING about one of the most important female dancers in Cambodia and the reign of terror under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In addition, Fruitmarket will be launching a co-production with the Norwegian director Tonje Hessen Schei (DRONE) and her company UpNorth about a kids’ fight club in Pakistan.