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Director: Pamela Mayer-Arndt (Germany). Year of Release: 2022

A woman is being photographed, her long hair attached to something which is holding her back. The photographer tells her that she must look like she is battling against the past, which is holding her back. Rebellinnen shows a number of photographic images that clearly mean more than what they are just depcting.

This is the story of Tina Bara, Cornelia Schleime und Gabriele Stötzer, who were all both photographers and members of the opposition in the DDR. Schleime and Bara fled to West Germany. Stötzrt stayed, saying that “staying is also a decision to refuse.”

Stötzer found political controversy from the get go. As early as 1976, she started a petition against the enforced exile of Wolf Biermann, a singer who agreed with many of the stated aims of the DDR, but was just too free-thinking for the authorities. Stötzer was the first signatory of the petition that she initiated, and was thus wrongly regarded by the Stasi to be the head of the East German opposition.

Bara was first active in the oppositional “Women for Peace” group. She later found work for a gallery in the DDR, where she was commissioned to photograph women workers in the Buna factory. Instead, she chose to take pictures of the terrible working and environmental conditions there. We also see her visiting the old East Berlin squat where she used to live. She is surprized by the amount of greenery that she can now see in the back yard.

Schleime was denounced by the régime for producing Müllkunst – trash art. This is a bit near to the knuckle if you think that a generation before, the Nazi régime was denouncing all art with which it politically disagreed or just didn’t understand as “degenerate”. Schleime’s reaction was to get involved in the punk scene, but you can understand her absolute frustration with a state which called itself progressive, but was just unwilling to engage with dissident artists.

This all sounds like the basis for a fascinating film. And it was ok, perfectly fine. It may have been the mood I was in, just a little too overtired, but I failed to be entranced. The photos that we saw were good without being spectacular. Too often we were shown a roll of photographs without homing in on any particular picture. I felt that we were being told that this is Artistically Important, without really feeling the value for ourselves.

At some stage, Super 8 films are rolled out that the artists made back in the day. Again, they are perfectly fine. But they’re not all that. I had the feeling of being trapped watching someone’s old home movies, unable to say that they’re fair enough, but pretty indistinguishable from all the other home movies that I’ve seen in my life.

Maybe I had to be there. Maybe I had to personally encounter the suffering that these women had to endure. But this just felt like something which was pushing all the “DDR hell” buttons without providing the substance for its argument. I am no fan of the DDR and celebrated its fall in 1989 as much as anyone, but there is too little new here that tells me anything that I didn’t know already-

As said. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that I just encountered Rebellinnen in the wrong mood – that it has hidden depths that I wasn’t ready to engage with. That may well be true. But maybe also it was lazy, and thought that just by showing dissident DDR artists, who have clearly suffered, that this was a sufficient alternative to any real story. Until I try it again (which I probably won’t), I really won’t know.

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