To Chemnitz with a movie camera

Germany’s 2013 election marked a sea change in the way I gathered news for BBC Online: video on every feature. Thanks to encouragement from a BBC documentary maker, I grabbed a Sony A1 and headed off, safe in the knowledge that there was money in the budget to hire a professional cameraman for the trickier material.

The assignment was to reflect modern German society as voters decided the future shape of their government. I had one week to cram in what I could.

Operating out of Berlin, I headed off to Chemnitz for my first piece, hoping to report on the country’s demographic crisis from the city with the most ageing population. It didn’t work out like that. What I got instead – and I thank sheer serendipity for it – was the story of an old soldier who had lived through Four Fatherlands. I met Herr Sonntag, 92, on the square while asking directions and we struck up an instant rapport when I struggled for a word in German and asked him if he didn’t happen to know any Russian (this is the city they named after Karl Marx during the GDR). He did. He had learnt it in Russia itself – as a prisoner of the Soviet Army…

I actually used up 2 days of my precious assignment time in Chemnitz, going back the next day to film general views for the video element in the feature. One of the most unforgettable days of my career: let loose for the first time with a film camera, on a cityscape straight out of the old Eastern Bloc, racing against the clock at the station that would take me back to 21st Century Berlin.

My other features went more or less as I had planned them along with my editors back at New Broadcasting House in London: visiting student fencers in Berlin and Spanish expatriates in Cologne, and a women-only steam bath in the heart of Berlin’s multi-ethnic Kreuzberg district.

But serendipity stepped in again for my fifth and last piece: when I noticed some Africans camping out on a Berlin square in wretched conditions, I went in and asked them why, and ended up with an awful story of war and loss during the Libyan uprising of 2011: the Lampedusas.




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