A New Beginning: Independent Documentary Film Initiative

Anli Serfontein
Dec 1, 2019 · 6 min read

docfilm42 launches on realeyz streaming platform

When two German documentary filmmakers, Susanne Dzeik and Peter Ohlendorf in 2018 ran into each other in Berlin and talked about the dire situation of independent documentary filmmakers, Peter started dreaming of a Netflix for alternative, critical and often very low-budget documentary films. That encounter could have remained just that: a dream.

But today we are quite giddy as we go online with our brand-new website designed by filmmaker and webmaster Davide Crivelli. Oliver Standke designed our logo.

Our first six documentaries on our curated docfilm42 VOD channel on realeyz can already be viewed. Months of hard work are finally bearing fruit.

A year of pushing a dream

We are pretty euphoric after a heady year from that first idea to the implementation today.

It was a year of many, many meetings, reaching out to people, endless formal and informal conversations and discussions and brain-storming sessions with like-minded filmmakers, potential partners, supporters. And there were the doomsayers who smiled knowingly, tried to discourage us and were surprised to find us still going a few months later.

In spring of this year Jochen Hick organised an event for AG DOK — the professional body of German documentary filmmakers — with Andreas Wildfang, the CEO of the Berlin indie streaming platform realeyz. That was strictly speaking the birth of our channel and our cooperation with realeyz started.

From then on things started to fall into place. We could fall back on the vast combined knowledge of Jochen - a successful and respected documentary filmmaker - and Andreas, who founded a successful independent German streaming platform that is also on Amazon Prime and that will have a European expansion in the new year. Added to this Susanne’s tenacity and vast networking skills and film-political contacts, plus Peter’s support from afar and a team was born.

Our favourite summer office on the banks of the Spree ©Anli Serfontein 2019

Getting this far to go online involved a lot of careful planning and lots of networking by our small team. It also involved many planning meetings: In the colder months we met in each other’s flats in Berlin, in cafés and in cultural centres across Berlin. In the hot summer months we had our meetings outside on terraces and our favourite location was in a beach bar on the banks of the Spree.

Our vision

We started off with the strong desire to provide a platform for independently produced, low-budget documentaries to showcase their diversity and cinematic quality to a wider public.

We ourselves are all independent documentary filmmakers who put a lot of passion into our work and often produce films under very trying circumstances.

We are driven by the strong conviction that our stories should be told because they touch a social nerve and have a strong appeal.

As documentary filmmakers we often work for many years in isolation, with many set-backs in order to finally produce our films.

Susanne Dzeik on 29 October 2019 in Leipzig at the Leipzig Dok Festival

The reality however is that many cinematically pleasing documentary film gems end up barely having an impact. They lack large budgets to fund advertising campaigns. Yet we feel these films should still be given a wider audience as they also have a socio-political impact.

Solidarity network

We know the pitfalls all too well and hope that this channel will eventually also function as a solidarity network between filmmakers, their wonderful films and audiences.

All of us, whether in our individual capacities or as a collective with a common purpose would like to see a lively film community in which we can exchange ideas, debate issues and get together and inspire each other to keep going.

At the moment we are a small group, which is not yet funded but we have a lot of self-motivation and a sense of purpose.

We believe in the power of the many and hope that together we can boost and support independent documentary filmmaking.

Berlin diversity

We would like to specifically promote women directors and directors with a migration background.

Berlin is once more a vibrant film city — many interesting projects are brewing here. Half of the the AGDok members — Germany’s documentary filmmaker’s professional body — live in this city. 400 after all — that is a lot of creative power.

In the last few years many refugee documentary filmmakers have made Berlin and Germany their home. One of them Talal Derki was earlier this year on the shortlist for the Oscar for documentaries with his film Of Fathers and Of Sons. We would specifically also like to include films by refugee and exiled filmmakers on our platform.


In this sense we are looking forward to collective, creative times in which you are all welcome to join us.

The people behind docfilm42

Peter Ohlnedorf at an event in 2012 © Peter Ohlendorf

Peter Ohlendorf, is a seasoned documentary filmmaker who turned away from mainstream television because he no longer saw a place there for his documentaries in the established film and television industry. He founded the company FilmFaktum, which he sees as an attempt to “produce documentary films off the beaten track”. With his self-financed film “Blood must flow — Undercover under Nazis” he has been touring Germany since the 2012 Berlinale. At an event of AG DOK, the German documentary filmmaker association in 2018 in Berlin he dreamt of a:

“Netflix for left-leaning documentaries — a platform that would give room for ecological, socio-political and open-minded documentary film productions.” Peter Ohlendorf.

Susanne Dzeik, is a Member of the Regional Board Berlin-Brandenburg of the AG DOK, Germany’s largest association for filmmakers. She produced her first documentaries for the underground magazine AK KRAAK, a leftist video collective in Berlin. After six years on the Board of Management of Europe’s largest self-organized film school filmArche and several independent productions (e.g. as a camerawoman for “Nach dem Brand” about the victims of the fire of the 1992 neo-Nazi arson attack in Mölln) she is now working on networking and connecting documentary filmmakers. Her film “Cloud Making Machine” is available on the new channel.

Sibylle Kappes, Jochen Hick and Susanne Dzeik at our first docfilm42 screening in Berlin on 24 November 2019 © Anli Serfontein, 2019

Jochen Hick independently produced numerous documentaries that were successfully shown at festivals and cinemas all over the world. Over the years more than ten of his films were shown in the official programme of the Berlinale Film Festival. His films often trace the plight of people in the LGBTQ community. His film The GDR Complex” is on the docfilm42 platform.

Sibylle Kappes brings to our group the experimental cinematic aspect. She produced among others GE8EN, an atmospherically dense essay film about the G8 summit in Heiligendamm in 2013. Currently she is working on an essay on Tibetan culture under the Chinese regime after she spent three years in Asia to research Tibetan society.

Me (far right) at docfilm42 screening and Q&A in Berlin on 24 November, 2019 © Susanne Dzeik, 2019

And lastly there is me. I’m a South African born documentary filmmaker, journalist and author. I received my documentary training at IKON TV in The Netherlands, where I was heavily influenced by the strong socio-political tradition of Dutch documentary filmmaking over many, many decades from Joris Ivens onwards. My first documentary film on the American documentary filmmaker Leo Hurwitz received the Filmfonds Television Prize at the Dutch Film festival Nederlands Filmfees in Utrecht in 1984. As a young filmmaker I was deeply influenced by Hurwitz’s strong socio-political films pointing out racism in the 1940’s and falling foul of McCarthyism in the 1950’s. I cherish my conversations with him to this day. I was also influenced by my Dad Hennie Serfontein’s documentary films which showed the ugly underbelly of apartheid, when it was very difficult to do so. I cut my teeth in filmmaking working on many of his films.

docfilm42

A Berlin documentary film initiative for independent productions that shine a light on areas neglected by the mainstream. docfilm42 focuses on social diversity and non-conformity: a channel for compelling cinematic stories. Here we bilingually introduce our films and filmmakers.

Anli Serfontein

Written by

South African journalist, author & filmmaker in Berlin. Writing on southern Africa, Germany, politics, culture, films, books, interfaith. www.serfontein.org

docfilm42

docfilm42

A Berlin documentary film initiative for independent productions that shine a light on areas neglected by the mainstream. docfilm42 focuses on social diversity and non-conformity: a channel for compelling cinematic stories. Here we bilingually introduce our films and filmmakers.

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