Editorial: Skip Norman. In His Own Words

The first part of this volume of Rosa Mercedes contains texts and documents written by Skip Norman—fragments of a written autoportrait, produced at various moments of his working life.

The documents span several decades and highlight some of the different geographical, cultural, and working contexts in which Skip Norman lived. The earliest document, presumably written around 1967, at the beginning of his time as a film student at the Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (DFFB), provides insights into his life before coming to West Berlin and enrolling at the newly established film school. It is written in German and entitled “Autobiographische Erläuterungen.” In a few paragraphs, Norman revisits his years in Göttingen (1961–65), which were marked by a strong interest in the German language and the theater, a brief phase studying medicine (1964–65), and two subsequent years in Denmark where he worked in a metal factory.

Three and a half decades later, in 2002, he looks back at his time at the DFFB in a filmed conversation with fellow student Gerd Conradt. Conradt paid a visit to Skip Norman in Northern Cyprus, where Norman had been living and teaching anthropology and photography since 1996. Their conversation focuses on Holger Meins, a prolific cinematographer who was friends with both as a fellow student at the DFFB. Meins later decided to join the Red Army Faction (RAF) and died in 1974 after a hunger strike in jail. Apart from sharing memories of Meins, the exchange between Norman and Conradt, two friends with a shared history, conveys a lot about the film school and its phase of politization in 1967 and 1968. Gerd Conradt uploaded the video to YouTube in 2015, and we provide a written transcript of their conversation.

Two documents from the publication DFFB “volljährig” fast-forward to the mid-1980s. Asked to contribute to a survey amongst the alumni, Norman sends a personal letter to Helene Schwarz, the school’s secretary. In the meantime, he had returned to the USA and earned an interdisciplinary PhD in anthropology, sociology, photography, and cinema at the Ohio State University in Columbus. In his answers, he self-critically positions his work as an independent filmmaker: “If the work of an independent is acceptable to the cultural gatekeepers (those who decide who gets money and how much), money is available. If the work of an independent is not acceptable (and this is not always a question of skill or competence), money is, obviously, not available. Although there is no direct cultural censorship, independents, nevertheless, walk a cultural tightrope because of the ethnocentricity of the majority culture. And most decisions in these agencies, that broker the little money available, are made by members of the majority culture. They are the ones with the decision-making jobs.” Despite these difficult circumstances, he maintains: “Although independent production is painful, frustrating, time consuming and exploitative, it provides the only avenue for the expression and advocacy that can be free of the onus of making money.” Both the survey and the letter to Helene Schwarz reveal a lot about Skip Norman’s ethos of work and life at the time: “When I am not making films in actual practice, I am making films in my mind. Otherwise I read and live to learn.”

One of the models he read and learned from is the author, folklorist, anthropologist, and ethnographic filmmaker Zora Neale Hurston. He wrote an article about her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) in 1990 for the Nora Zeale Hurston Journal, which is republished in this issue.

Later, in his practice of teaching photography and ethnography in Northern Cyprus, filmmaking seems to have played a minor role. In three short paragraphs entitled “Ethnography,” probably addressed to his students, Skip Norman gives a beautiful definition of this (historically highly problematic) discipline: “Ethnography means learning about the culture from the culture.” And he optimistically adds: “This cultural knowledge is like a recipe for organizing the necessary ingredients for a viable social life.”

In the section “Documents,” which runs parallel to the subsequent parts of this issue of Rosa Mercedes, we provide a short piece of film which Ingrid Oppermann found amongst the 8-mm material that she kept from around 1970.

Volker Pantenburg, January 2021

 

Imprint: Rosa Mercedes 03/A, “Skip Norman: In His Own Words”

Research Team: Madeleine Bernstorff, Elsa de Seynes, Kodwo Eshun, Tom Holert, Brigitta Kuster, Pascal Maslon, Doreen Mende, Volker Pantenburg, Alexandra Symons Sutcliffe

Editor: Volker Pantenburg

Production: Harun Farocki Institut

Managing Editor: Pascal Maslon

Proofreading: Mandi Gomez

Thanks to Skip Norman’s family, Stiftung Deutsche Kinemathek, Deutsche Film- und Fernsehakademie Berlin (dffb), Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, Ingrid Oppermann, Gerd Conradt, and Johannes Beringer.

We have made every effort to clarify all rights of use with regard to the publication of the images and texts used here. In a few cases, despite intensive research, we have not been able to clarify the rights holders. Please contact the Harun Farocki Institut in case of any legal claims.

Wir haben uns bemüht, alle Nutzungsrechte bezüglich der Veröffentlichung der hier verwendeten Bilder und Texte zu klären. In wenigen Fällen ist es uns trotz intensiver Recherche nicht gelungen, die Rechteinhaber zu klären. Bitte wenden Sie sich bei etwaigen Rechtsansprüchen an das Harun Farocki Institut.

 

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January 19th, 2021 — Rosa Mercedes / 03 / A