The thing that fascinates me about the United States is how you can belong but still have a strong cultural identity from elsewhere; hence the hyphenated Americans who claim an identity from a homeland long left and an equally strong connection with the country they live in, and most likely were born in. In this novel by Michael Barakiva the hyphen joins Armenia and America.
Aleksander Kederian is the younger of two sons in a family that adheres strongly to their Armenian community and traditions. Alek thinks this marks him out as different. While never rejecting any aspect of his heritage, he is aware of how his mother and father seem to others. There is something else on the horizon that will mark Alek as different, only this time it may separate him from his family. He has met another boy and he thinks he is falling in love.
While his parents and brother holiday without him (he has to repeat classes at Summer school if he is to continue as an ‘honor student’- not my spelling of ‘honour’) he spends time with Ethan, a slightly older boy who is comfortable in his own skin and not afraid of telling anyone he is gay.
Through a week of his parents’ absence, Alek lives another life, conscious that real life will invade when he tells his parents he is gay.
There are ups and downs, as well as a feisty girl best friend in whom Alek confides, but the central point of this book is that a boy of 14 is coming to terms with his sense of who is he is and how he fits in, or rather on what terms he fits in. The author describes the book as a ‘comedy’ but, while I didn’t laugh out loud, it made me smile. What isn’t to like about a story of a boy’s first love when it isn’t all angst and doom!
Another German film with a gay theme worth watching is ‘Summer Storm’ from director Marco Kreutzpaintner. The year is 2004 so it is set in a unified Germany bit one where young men still fear coming out to their friends in case the reaction is hostile. Teenage Tobi, played by Robert Stadlober, is gay but not yet out. His girlfriend wants more intimacy than he is prepared to give. Instead, he admires his best friend Achim, played by Kostja Ullman, and keeps his desires secret.
His team of rowers head for southern Germany to prepare for a competition. Teams from all over the country will descend on the lakes and camping grounds and Tobi’s teammates boast about the all girls team from Berlin that will share their camping ground. On arrival, though, they learn that the girls have pulled out and have been replaced by a team called ‘Queerstrokes’. This is a team of out and proud gay teens!
The story concerns the struggle within Tobi as he falls for openly gay Leo. Tensions between the two teams lead to a confrontation where Tobi is challenged to deny rumours about his sexuality. There are two pictures of gay youth on view in this film: the conflicted Tobi is balanced by the team of young rowers who are out and proud and celebrating the fact. It is a film of tension and pain but it has a positive message and the ending is upbeat, despite the fracturing of friendships.
‘Summer Storm’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This East German film was made at the very end of the Communist regime. It is a touching story of a young teacher who finds commitment very hard, much to the consternation of his mother who thinks he should settle down with a girlfriend and live the life everyone else is living.
Philipp has other plans, though, and other reasons for not living a conventional life. He keeps his sexuality secret and starts a relationship with a young female teacher at the high school where he works. Throughout the film we see him wrestle with questions of desire and attraction. He is conflicted over the need to live a conventional life and his wish to be as brave as the gay men he meets and socialises with. Jakob is a flamboyant young man who is a friend of his girlfriend. There is a lot of tension in the air when they meet at her apartment.
Into the film comes Matthias a somewhat shy young man who watches from afar but who makes no secret of his attraction to Philipp . There are scenes in a gay bar where many of the patrons are in drag or fancy dress. Whereas most of the men are comfortable in this scene and with themselves, the struggle continues for Philipp. An older gay man recounts the struggle he went through as homosexual during the Nazi era. The implication is that there is more freedom in the DDR. In one speech, he praises the communists for helping him where others rejected him.
At the end of the film, Philipp has a decision to make. The title may give away the ending but this film has an important message about acceptance, self- worth and freedom. The fact that this was one of the last films made by the DDR’s DEFA studios makes it an interesting document of times changing.
‘Coming Out’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This poem questions the prejudice of some people. It questions the stigma that some people believe attaches to the term and the people it labels. Since the world is such a diverse place there may be less and less need for poets like John Agard to pick up pens in defence of diversity. Until then, this poem remains a favourite. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
standing on one leg
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when picasso
mix red an green
is a half-caste canvas/
wha u mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when light an shadow
mix in de sky
is a half-caste weather/
well in dat case
nearly always half-caste
in fact some o dem cloud
half-caste till dem overcast
so spiteful dem dont want de sun pass
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean tchaikovsky
sit down at dah piano
an mix a black key
wid a white key
is a half-caste symphony/
wha yu mean
Ah listening to yu wid de keen
half of mih ear
Ah looking at u wid de keen
half of mih eye
and when I’m introduced to yu
I’m sure you’ll understand
why I offer yu half-a-hand
an when I sleep at night
I close half-a-eye
consequently when I dream
I dream half-a-dream
an when moon begin to glow
I half-caste human being
but yu come back tomorrow
wid de whole of yu eye
an de whole of yu ear
and de whole of yu mind
an I will tell yu
de other half
of my story
A sign of a good film, as far as I am concerned, is the extent to which you think about it afterwards. This 2006 film by filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmark stayed with me for weeks after I saw it at the cinema. This is a spy film but not a thriller. The spies here are the civil servant types whose work is made up of mundane tasks as they keep an eye on their neighbours and friends. There is very little glamour in the ways in which citizens are watched over. The story is set in 1984 with an epilogue showing the end of the DDR.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of a country like East Germany is that the authorities trusted nobody. Every citizen required scrutiny. The propaganda that freedom was being protected for the good of all was undermined by a state that placed no confidence in its own people. This film shows the corrosive effects of living with such distrust on those who carry out the surveillance. Ulrich Muhe stars as Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler. Sebastian Koch plays the playwright he is assigned to watch over. Such close observation of the playwright and his wife affect Wiesler in ways he did not expect. Watching two people in love emphasises his loneliness. In addition, the idealist Wiesler finds himself in sympathy with the playwright who was, and should still be, loyal to the state. The crass treatment of fellow artists leads to the questioning of the state as a benign protector. From the sidelines, the Stasi agent can see what his superiors refuse to accept, that they are alienating their own people.
In German the film is called, ‘Das Leben Der Anderen’. It won the 2006 Oscar for Foreign Language Film. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This film from 2003 is a gem. ‘Goodbye Lenin’ is the story of a family coming to terms with the end of the DDR. We see the mother and her teenaged son and daughter from the Autumn of 1989 through to a year later when the two German countries united. The mother is a loyal citizen of East Germany. She lives with her children in East Berlin, estranged from her husband who fled to the West.
It has comedic moments and I have seen it labeled as a comedy but it has serious points to make. When the DDR crumbles, the son is concerned at the effect this may have on his ailing mother. She has a heart attack when she sees her son arrested by the Stasi. When she awakes from her coma, eight months later, the world has changed and the DDR no longer exists.
The comedic elements of the film come from the efforts the son goes to, aided by his sister and his new girlfriend, to prevent his mother from discovering that her beloved East Germany, the state she dedicated her life to, has disappeared. The personal and political coincide here just as they did in Maxim Leo’s book, ‘Red Love’. We get to see here, though, how quickly capitalism filled the vacuum once communism fell. Brand names and company logos sprout up all over the city.
There are poignant moments, too, when we see the son trying to hang on to what was good about the country in which he grew up and what made his mother feel secure. Any country which needs to control its population to such an extent as the East German state deserves to fall, but with it inevitably go the things which were positive and fair.
In the scene where the son traces his father in the West, we see the dilemma. His life could have been like this, or it could have been like the one he tried to maintain for his mother.
‘Goodbye Lenin!’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Maxim Leo has written a moving book about his family. It is full of characters that populate a family, some more engaging than others but all the more extraordinary in this case because the creation and downfall of the German Democratic Republic or DDR acts a both a backdrop to the family history and a motivating factor in the actions of many of its members.
In one family Leo tells the story of Germans persecuted by the Nazi regime who find solace in a communist state that offers security in the post war years. He also tells of their children and grandchildren who grew up in a state that restricted so many freedoms so that the people could be ‘free’, a contradiction not lost on the teenage Leo who finds himself on the streets in 1989 when demonstrations started.
Perhaps the most conflicted of all were his parents. His grandparents found a sanctuary in East Germany. They were the ones who had suffered the most from the fascists. To them this new country represented a new start. But to their children, the regime they were brought up to obey and honour showed its true colours the more they learned about its ways. The most sympathetic character to me was Maxim Leo’s mother, Anne, who grew up believing the propaganda only to see behind the veil when she became a journalist for state sponsored newspapers. This did not turn her against Communism even if she saw the faults in the party. Instead, she could see that reform was needed if state socialism was to survive. She did not get the chance to influence the demonstrations that she hoped would lead the party to reform itself. Before that could happen, the wall had fallen and the end of the DDR was in sight.
In one particularly stunning moment, Leo writes of the Stasi man who was pushed at a 1989 demonstration. This act of force against an agent of the state was so shocking to the man himself that he could not comprehend that it had happened. He ran off. In such human moments are great historical movements captured.
‘Red Love: The Story of an East German Family’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?