Culture - Issue 159 - Magazine | Monocle

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film ––– usa
States of play

While America’s soft power has waxed and waned (see page 71), its film industry remains the country’s primary exporter of cultural influence around the world. The endless churn of superhero movies, however, presents a skewed idea of what life is like in the US. With that in mind, a decade ago, the State Department launched the American Film Showcase (afs), screening the latest US-made documentaries depicting American life – warts and all.

“These movies tell the stories of Americans struggling, often for equal rights, which resonates with audiences around the world,” says Rachel Gandin Mark, director of international programmes at the Cinematic School of Arts, who has overseen the programme since its inception, reaching almost 250,000 people in 111 countries via US consulates. Many of the titles begin from a bleak premise but culminate in an uplifting tale of people overcoming their lot in life. The current line-up includes A Most Beautiful Thing, a film about a rowing team from the west side of Chicago.

“There’s a very intense desire to create TV content and we have a skill that people trust”

As part of the afs, American film industry insiders are dispatched around the globe as envoys to train local talent. “That’s a really important role for what we do,” says Gandin Mark. “There’s a very intense desire to create TV content around the world and we have a skill that people trust.”

Francisco Pérez, now a public-affairs officer at the US consulate in Rio de Janeiro, has rolled out the afs programme across three continents. “The power of the messages you can impart through film is often underestimated,” says Pérez. “By training film-makers who are learning about human rights, democracy and values that we as Americans hold dear, it’s going to influence the rest of their careers.”

cinema ––– berlin
Set in the present

In the 20th century’s first decade, Europe dominated the cinema industry – studios and lots popped up from Berlin and Paris to Copenhagen. But after two world wars shifted film’s epicentre to Hollywood, many European film production sites fell into disrepair or were underused.

Opened in 1912, the Berlin Union Film Ateliers (bufa) was a cinematic pioneer: classic silent film The Golem was shot here, as was Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Though film and TV production teams worked here through the decades, by the 2010s the 2.4 hectare area on the edge of Tempelhof’s old airfield had become a desolate hodgepodge of sad buildings and cracked concrete.


“The campus was unloved,” says Clive Nichols, ceo of Fabrix, a London-based property firm focusing on social change. He had come across bufa and in 2015 bought the lot (with funding from the social justice Bertha Foundation). Following a master plan by Dutch architecture firm mvrdv, the Fabrix team has been slowly rejuvenating the area ever since, reusing materials for architectural updates and greening the outdoor space. The resulting site, called Atelier Gardens, launched last year.

Berliners are joining forces to honour the site’s cinematic past. “Before we began, we had so many conversations with people here over four years; at some point we just had to get on with it,” says Nichols. Around the grounds are raised garden boxes, a “flying stage” (an art project involving homing pigeons) run by Syrian theatre artist Ayham Majid Agha, a tiny house-cum-office, and a treehouse workroom on timber stilts. The Berlin Film Festival used the Atelier Gardens’ outdoor open-air cinema for screenings during the pandemic. 


Long-term tenants include the MetFilm School, whose students use production facilities such as the “dubbing village” (German productions seldom use subtitles). On the environmentally friendly, entrepreneurial side, there’s Thinkfarm, a co-working space; and Tiny Farms, which grows organic vegetables on microfarms to be sold in local grocers. Caterer Roots Radicals runs the Atelier Gardens’ canteen with the latter’s produce. “About 150 people are here on a daily basis now,” says Benjamin Rodrigues Kafka, bufa’s community and partnership director. “We’re aiming for 360 to 600 people.”

bufa might be the “cradle of German cinema,” as Nichols puts it, but he’s aware of how times are changing. Studio 1 is no longer viable for today’s high recording standards so is set to be an event space for workshops and symposia. And the film studios now support more than just traditional cinema: Youtube videos have been produced here too. “Impactful content will remain the essential theme of the site,” says Nichols. “We talk a lot about nature and sustainability but what’s really important is joy.”;;

PHOTOGRAPHER: Felix Brüggemann

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