I first saw Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years (2012) when it was screened at the FWSA Biennial Conference in June 2013 at the University of Nottingham. The film focuses on the time the African American, feminist, lesbian, warrior, poet, Audre Lorde spent travelling back and forth to Berlin between 1984 and 1992, and her influence on the Afro-German community.
The documentary is made up of home movie footage taken by Dagmar Schultz (director), and after the screening, a member of the audience asked Schultz if she had filmed Lorde with the intention of making a film with it; Schultz told us that she just felt that Lorde’s presence was important, her time in Berlin was important and she was moved to record it. I am thankful that she did, because Schultz has presented us with something very important: a historical document of a period in Lorde’s life that many of us knew little about, a view of a transformative moment in Afro-German History, and also a fascinating, warming, and healing exchange between a transnational feminist sisterhood.
The film is a collage of dinner parties, social events, public lectures, and planning meetings for several Afro-German community groups Lorde inspired. This is peppered with audio sequences set to still photographs in which Lorde is no longer speaking with her friends or to an audience within a particular shot; instead her voice is stripped of its original setting and she becomes the most prominent narrator of this posthumous documentary, signalling the longevity of her prose, poetry, thinking and activism.
The Berlin Years also gives generous time to Lorde’s significance as a unifying figure; many scenes feature Lorde discussing the notion of difference and encouraging her listeners, both onscreen and the viewers, to approach differences of race, gender and sexuality in positive and progressive ways. We see Lorde as muse who inspired many Afro-German women to write about their experiences and record their cultural history, for example, Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out (eds. May Opitz, Katharina Oguntoye, Dagmar Schultz). More importantly, the documentary represents the exchange of knowledge and ideas that Lorde encouraged.
At the heart of The Berlin Years is the woman-centred community that Lorde fostered during her time in Berlin. As her health deteriorates the most striking scenes are those in which she is surrounded by women who care for her, comfort her and listen to her. We see Lorde taking simple pleasure in activities such as making necklaces or preparing and serving food for her friends at a time when her appetite was waning. All of these moments involve sharing and giving back in some way (the extras included in the DVD provide even more of these scenes). Ultimately we see the kindness and generosity, as well as activism, that can flourish when women come together to, in Gloria Anzaldúa’s words, “do the work that matters” (The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, 314).
Check out some reactions to Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years at the FWSA conference here: