Monday, May 06, 2013

Berliner Mauer geek's early moring cycling

On early May Bank Holiday in the UK, I took the opportunity on the back of an unexpected early wake-up, to trace parts of the Berlin Wall along the Mitte-Kreuzberg border. As I randomly happened to be cycling from the Charite, southwards on Wilhelmstrasse, I realised I would cycle through Zimmerstrasse where the wall once stood.

Utilising my Berlin Wall App, I decided to check out some of the landmarks in the area, starting with this observation tower on Erna-Berger-Strasse, to the right of the picture. To the left of the picture, on the background, you can see the building of the Federal Ministry of the Environment - where a part of the wall has been preserved and integrated into the building. So, actually, on the ground floor, when you look through the front window, you see pieces of the wall, next to which the canteen workers were heaving their breakfast before the morning shift. 


I only recalled visiting the Topografie des Terrors (TdT) on one of my earlier visits to Berlin (during 2005-2008 period) after I came across again, this morning, on Zimmerstrasse. The building to the right is the current Federal Ministry of Finance - at the centre, you can see a stretch of the wall, with the exhibition (TdT: to the left of it.

The Ministry of Finance building also happens to be the House of Ministries during the DDR period - somewhat the epicentre of DDR government politics.In 1965, a man named Heinz Hozapfel made a spectacular escape, with his family, from the top of the building: He hid in the toilet for the evening, and after the nightfall utilised a rope (with help by others) as a cableway to launch the family and glide them to freedom over the Wall.

Here is a Spiegel article from the time:
...and here is a Die Welt article from 2000:
Not far from the Ministry of Finance (to its west), and a stone's throw away from Checkpoint Charlie (to its east) is a permanent exhibition of some of he curiosities about the ways of how STASI (the DDR State Security) worked. It was too early in the morning for me to visit (the exhibition opens daily from 10 AM), but I need to come back as many would know my curiosity into the subject:

Here is a juxtaposition with the building to the right, a wasteland (part of former 'death strip) to the left and a hot-air balloon, sponsored by Die Welt to the right.

Speaking of Die Welt, it is well worth mentioning the standpoint of Axel-Springer Publishing Company, that publishes Die Welt, among a number of other daily newspapers and magazines in Germany.

Axel Springer was an idealist who built his empire right at the border between the Federal Germany and the DDR (more on the building here:
His ideology was simple: "believing in German unity", though a conservative one at that.
It is rather less well-known that Die Welt, somewhat similar to the Daily Mail in the UK, ran a hate campaign against the leftists in the era of 1960s, and the infamous RAF. Rudi Dutschke was one leftist, shot in the street by a young boy, as he was being targeted by Die Welt, in 1968. 

While Axel-Springer Strasse (where I took this picture) is an amalgamation of out-of-place contemporary architecture, reminiscent of Potsdamer Platz, as it happens to be one of many former "death strip" areas, the irony lies in its neighbouring Rudi-Dutschke Strasse (formerly Kochstrasse), renamed in the honour of Rudi Dutschke after the leftist newspaper Tageszeitung (taz)'s persistent campaign. 

Even less-known is the work of the artist Peter Lenk "Peace Be With You" on the side of the wall of taz building that directly faces the Axel-Springer Hochhaus. The work clearly mocks the many penis-based cheap news that the likes of Die Welt and many other Axel-Springer publications spam the German society with:

Tracing the Wall has been made easy by numerous attempts of the city authorities. Other than this useful app that I have been using (, the city has marked areas where the Wall once ran and demarcated streets with "Mauerweg" signs to keep Wall commuters along the path of where it used to stand.
As described earlier, there is still a plethora of 'waste land' in inner Berlin. The most famous regeneration attempts of these areas, made derelict as they used to form 'death strips' (the areas between the Wall and the frontier barrier where the Allied soldiers guarded), of course, include Potsdamer Platz. However, as Berlin was admittedly overbuilt in the 1990s with the hopes of relocation of mass populations across from Germany, there was less need to keep building for periods of time (and there may be other reasons, too).  

Today, you still come across areas in these wastelands that now make ways for new office blocks and luxury apartments, 24 years after the Wall has come down. 
...and little did I know that my daily cycling commute, through Heinrich-Heine-Strasse towards Moritzplatz went through a border crossing, here, demarcated by one of many information boards around the city.
Many people allegedly attempted to cross the border here in vehicles, speeding through border police and the physical barriers - while, unfortunately, many of these attempts ended in misery. Today, Moritzplatz, at the heart of Kreuzberg, is relevant in two interesting ways (if not more):
It is an area where land prices skyrocketed more than anywhere else and it houses a refugee/asylum camp of Nigerians (and other Africans) on the park at the square where some of Germany's Occupy movement resided a few years ago.

Monday, March 04, 2013

T1's family of strangers

At the first security through departure halls at Heathrow Terminal 1 on a Thursday evening, you are a stranger amongst a large family of strangers. You immediately realise: that everyone is looking at you because they know one another, or pretend to do so -- and you are the unknown subject. The security is fairly quick. Everyone carries one of the two or three different types of carry-on bags. Travel-size toiletry are already packed into plastic displays, iPads and laptops are removed before any warning. The demographics are so standard that the security personnel who saw your Turkish passport remarks: my sister lives in Bodrum. where in Turkey do you come from? He hasn't had small talk at airport security since 2 years. He can't complain though, working at Terminal 1 is easy. Traveling through it, too.

The Duty Free is remarkably quiet. Because passengers either know what they were after, or they just didn't bother shopping there. After all, for the German-speaking majority, booze is cheaper at supermarkets back home, or the glamorous types of drinks are not to be found here. It is indeed a German-speaking majority: Terminal 1 is Heathrow's first-born baby; it is a dwarf to Terminal 5, and well below capacities of counter-weight terminals at other airports. If you want people traveling across the globe with shopping trolleys, holiday packages or gifts to nephews and nieces back home, you go to Terminals 3, 4, and 5. T1's halls are dominated by Lufthansa, Austrian, and Swiss, all part of the same company now, anyway. Smart dresses flirt with high-heels and the odd ski-trip travelers talk of past year's banking bonuses. British traditional ales run out, German lagers on draught are preferred next best options. Loners drink Guinness.

If you are scared of flying, take a flight from Terminal 1. Carriers fly short-haul, ablaze with important people. The plane will not crash, and you will build confidence in flying. If the odd scenario does take place, you'll have died gracefully at others' company.

There are no holiday packagers at Terminal 1. Emirates aren't there, and neither are Qatar, Qantas, Singapore, American, Virgin, Delta, or Air India. The demographics of travelers are remarkable stable, the destinations either medieval or stock-market digital.

You are a fool if you have bought the Financial Times at WHSmith. Or you are just too keen; or outright disconnected. Former because, you'll be given a free copy on boarding the plane. Maybe you are not patient enough and want to read straight away, but surely, by the time of an evening flight, someone should have briefed you the day's headlines, inside-out, if you were are a regular T1 passenger. You are not, and that is why you may be surprised... surprised to see how smoothly everything operates. They never asked for your Schengen visa at check-in, they did not bother with your passport's ID page at boarding, you were probably under the record all the way through. They knew which ale you drank and they trusted you. Because you are in the company of the international business family.

The family that took so little time to board the plane that you cannot recall if security announcements were made. Before you were sat, the aircraft started its taxi. Take off within minutes' time and the gazes have stopped. Everyone is minding their own papers and you are now officially an accepted stranger in the family of strangers.

-- on board LH3377 (London - Berlin) flight, 28 February 2013, 19:30 GMT.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tough Bond

On 15 Februrary 2013, I had one of the most fulfilling documentary experiences in my life. Having gotten out of the bed with ample time on my clock, I somehow managed to leave the small room I was renting in Berlin-Mitte late enough, so that I had to make a 3-minute run to Nordbahnhof, and fly through the "shiny surfaces and special effects, laced with nostalgia and product placement" of Potsdamer Platz to make it on time to the 11:30 screening of Tough Bond at the CinemaxX. My second film, so far, of this year's Berlinale edition, I was optimistic, having picked 5 great films out of the 6 I saw previous year. My expectations were far more than fulfilled.

Tough Bond was featured as part of the Generation 14plus section of the festival, a section that is aimed to "integrate children and youth into the festival’s film-aesthetic discourse". The documentary follows a number of kids in different towns in Kenya to merge the audience into the environment in which these kids live. Their lives, to a great extent, speak of otherwise invisible characters who struggle to become survivors (or "servivors" as one wall graffito read). All of the kids hail from an area surrounding Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, whose life and provision of livelihood to its environment has come under threat with the construction of a major dam on the Omo river in the northerly-neighbouring country of Ethiopia. With very little to live on, indigenous peoples of the area have migrated to towns across Kenya. There is one common character that bonds these kids together, a tough one that is, that they all sniff glue on regular bases.

Our first encounter is Sinbad, a generally upbeat kid in Isiolo, Kenya. Sinbad is depicted as one of the stronger kids in the town, collecting plastics and metal from the streets, and the garbage and sell/return to metal scrap dealers for money, with which he either buys medicine for his ill grandmother, or more glue for himself. It is Sinbad's grandmother who has raised him, and to whom Sinbad looks upon as his true mother. And it is for whom Sinbad returns to his shack home every now and then, to take care of her, though he prefers to sleep rough on the streets, with the full confidence that his mates will protect him. Quite predictably, the mother figure is an underlying symbol throughout the film. The documentary starts with the filming of a very difficult labour process, and subtle references to the motherhood of nature, manipulated by mankind's political desires float throughout the film.

If Sinbad is an abandoned child of the nature, Akai, a young girl in the second village we travel to, Meru, a base for travellers to the Meru National Park, is the abandoned child of the society at large. She is the classical example of an exploited young girl who finds a way to get away from her abusive "husband", only to return to him a year later, and now infected with HIV that he contracted from others. As Akai introduces us to the medical care system in this impoverished town, our directos take us to Nairobi to reveal where the name of the film comes from: Tough Bond is a chemical product that is used to bond parts and accessories to metals, commonly used in minibuses and other vehicles to strengthen the seats. While the Kenyan Government is alleged to ask the producers of the glue company to combat the issue, the business-owner claims that 15% of the produce go to children for sniffing. As we follow the intricate route of the glue from the factory to the hands of the furniture manufacturers, and the elderly of the towns and villages who dilute them and sell them to children, we get a sense of how the supply chain works on this most precious goods on the street market.

As kids entertain themselves in the two small towns, watching trashy east-Asian marshal arts films on small television sets, a group of young and tough kinds in the Kiamaiko Slum in Nairobi call themselves the legion, the brotherhood. Complaining about being stigmatised by the city-dwellers, they claim to stand out for one another in a hostile environment. After all, these are places where individuals are not allowed to exist -- if you are outcast from the legion, you are in trouble; or, as the community worker lady in Isiolo had said "when a child is born, he/she belongs to the community; if the child splits from the community, the child cannot exist". Introduced, once again, at the very end of the film, she bluntly points her finger to the overall discourse that has come to plague the society:

"... these people, we, ... are not accustomed to urban living. We have to wake up... and we have to work very hard".

As I prepared to gather my thoughts on what the conditions of a rapidly urbanising world meant to otherwise invisible people to us, the directors of the film came up onto the stage for a Q&A. While I mention this, I have to add that I am always pleasantly surprised at the ratio of unannounced Q&As at the end of films at Berlinale (over the last two years, about two thirds of all films I have seen had them).

When the first-time documentary feature directors came up on stage, the Berlinale producer asked them the same question that came to everyone's mind: "two white Americans, shooting a documentary in sub-Saharan Africa -- why is this any different?"

The directors then went on to explain their motif: the idea of giving the people to voice their own narrative.
The means were simple: none of the documentary was scripted. The directors lived with the communities in the shacks and on the streets for over a year, and traveled back again after another year. They had an early interview with the Vice President in Nairobi, who claims in the film "that street children in Nairobi is no longer", and they used a picture they took with him to gain access where necessary in the villages across the country.
They had a code: no footprint -- meaning no unjustifiable help to the children (in terms of food). Though they sometimes broke the code, they had also initially agreed to put Sinbad into a boarding school, and Akai into a skills programme. They have recently found out that both children had been taken back by their families or communities.

And this is the soft underbelly of any such production, many examples of which we have come across over the years. It is inevitable to have left a footprint, to have had impact on the lives of the communities, and offer very little after leaving. Yet, the directors wanted to leave a legacy behind.

The production company, Village Beat, has set up a radio that serves to "1: Immediate information during crisis. 2: An equal access platform for peaceful & substantial issue discussion. 3: A means to celebrate and protect culture through music and storytelling." Crowdsourcing, entertainment, and an internal communications device, all at once. The idea is, possibly naive, but appreciable: "to see if it will help people to try and stop the children in their communities from using glue".

Majority of that responsibility lies with the authorities who can provide the mental, social, and physical infrastructure to communities in need. The resources may be scarce but they are disproportionately distributed. That said, external factors loom large. What this film was about though, as the directors claim:

"an answer to what happens when the delicate balance between humans and nature is disturbed". I learned from it, and I was inspired to see a full-house in a chilly, beautiful Berlin morning, and three rows of school children who participated in the Q&A of a documentary selected for a section of a festival dedicated to them.