Skip, Take a Picture, Record It!

Helke Sander

I met Skip Norman in film school. We were both in the dffb’s very first class in 1966. Right away, he was camera assistant on my first two films, on Silvo (1966) and also on Subjektitüde (1966–67). So we had already shot together in 1966 because at the dffb we all helped each other out. That’s how the training was at the time.

The first thing I remember is the experience that made it onto the cover of Frauen und Film issue 5. It was 1975. The Federal Constitutional Court had overturned the law permitting an abortion within the first three months of pregnancy.1 There was a demonstration at the Gedächtniskirche where flyers were being handed out on whose masthead stood Alexandra Kollontai, Frauenstraße 1 in Kreuzberg. I was there filming with one of the first video cameras, which I had borrowed from Michael Geißler. But I had already put it away because the protest was not particularly interesting. Also, I couldn’t stand women shouting naive slogans like “We decide whether or not we have children!” But then the fire department came because the demonstrators threw a bucket of red paint on the steps of the Gedächtniskirche. A fire fighter dipped his forefinger in the red paint, which was still wet, and sniffed it. I don’t know if he tasted it too. I ran to the car and grabbed my equipment again. A lot of people were watching who were kind of there for the thrill. One of the firemen—meanwhile, the police had also arrived—wiped up the paint, which had spread out a little bit more. It was all rather strange. There were flyers lying everywhere. In any case, the police came over to me and arrested me. Just then, I saw Skip watching from the crowd. I shouted: “Skip, take a picture, record it!” Because he always had a few still cameras hanging around his neck. He did that and then they arrested him right away too. We were only able to talk for about two minutes. He said he had just come from America and gotten off at Bahnhof Zoo and was walking around and then stuck around this crowd of people. It was already a very unusual situation because it was such a coincidence. I had not seen him in several years. We were both taken to the police station behind Bahnhof Zoo and were locked up in different cells there, him with Russian kids from Marienfelde and me alone. It took insanely long, a few hours, before I could call a lawyer. But the people standing around at the Gedächtniskirche who had witnessed everything had gotten upset that we were arrested. Then a CDU party member immediately organized a demonstration in front of the police station that we could hear a bit of from inside. The noise, the “Freedom for…!” Then I called Schily in the office. A lawyer, Becker, got us released. The whole story went on and on because the unions got involved and it led to a small inquiry in the Bundestag from FDP party members Gerhart Baum and Burkhard Hirsch, who were unbelievably good democrats at the time. In the end, the trial turned out like this: Because I was not a regular employee at the SFB or another radio station or newspaper, but freelance, it meant I was filming as a hobby and the police therefore had the right to confiscate the tapes. I never got the half-inch videotapes back. They were probably thrown away a long time ago.

Skip Norman had already left before the trial started. The trial was against—in alphabetical order—Alexandra Kollontai, who they spent a long time looking for. They had no idea who she was. Then Schily pointed out to them that she had been buried for this or that many years at the Kremlin Wall. The whole thing fell to pieces because everything on the flyer was fake. On the masthead was Frauenstraße 1 in Kreuzberg, where Alexandra Kollontai supposedly lived, but that didn’t exist either.

I had a similar formative experience with Skip. It was in 1967 during the Six Days War. Enzio Edschmid, Skip and I were sitting in the café near the film school on Theodor-Heuss-Platz. We were discussing Israel and the war and all kinds of other things. Then Skip suddenly said that we shouldn’t say “nxxxx” anymore. Enzio and I objected: “Why not?” We didn’t know anything else and the term “Schwarzer” (black) didn’t exist yet. We said that “nxxxx” was not discriminatory either. But Skip was our friend. We argued about it a little. “Nxxxx” meant the same thing as “black” anyway. Yes, that was true, but this is what the Black Panthers had decided on. It is what we should say, and we promised him to do so, somewhat in the manner of a Fritz Teufel: “If it serves to establish the truth.” We kept our promise and he was glad.

In my film Brecht die Macht der Manipulateure (1968), Skip reads a long, off-screen text by Frantz Fanon, from the cameraman’s position. This doesn’t correspond to any film rules, but that is how it was. I found it was a little too long but also thought that he should really have his say. He was adamant the passage be included.

It was very cooperative. We could always talk about everything. It was a sign of the times that we discussed a tremendous amount and you were allowed to have different opinions. And we got closer that way.

I especially like Skip’s short 16mm film with the white screen: Cultural Nationalism (1969). He made it for the Black Panthers. They wanted a political film from him and in my opinion, it really is one. However, an important Black Panther Group in Copenhagen didn’t know what to make of it, they had something entirely different in mind. More militant. Not a dot that grows bigger and bigger over ten minutes until it can be recognized as a black kid in the snow. It’s my favorite film of his.

I’m also very fond of the camera movements in his very first film with the couple: Riffi (1966).

From a conversation with Madeleine Bernstorff, March 16, 2021


Helke Sander studied at dffb together with Skip Norman. She joined the Sozialistische Deutsche Studentenbund (Socialist German Students, SDS) in 1967, and in 1968 co-founded “Action Council for Women’s Liberation.” Sander initiated the movement for anti-authoritarian children’s nurseries, the “First International Women’s Film Meeting” (1973) with Claudia von Alemann, as well as the film magazine Frauen und Film (1974). Her groundbreaking film The All-Round Reduced Personality – Redupers was shot in 1978. She was a professor for Film at the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg and is an author alongside her filmmaking work.

Translated by Ted Fendt. German version available as a PDF.


1 Editor’s note: Also called Fristenlösung: in 1974, following a bill proposed by the SPD and FDP concerning abortion, the Bundestag voted for the model of a so-called Fristenlösung allowing an abortion to be approved within the first three months of a pregnancy. Federal states where the CDU and CSU held office brought a lawsuit to the supreme court intended to declare the Fristenlösung unconstitutional. In 1975, the court voted in favor of this opinion. 1

Image: Frauen und Film 5, 1974 © Brigitte Tast

[Suggested citation: Helke Sander, “Skip, Take a Picture, Record It!” Rosa Mercedes 03/B (April 2021),]

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April 2021 — Rosa Mercedes / 03 / B

On Friday, April 6, 2021, at 8 p.m., Akademie Schloss Solitude will host a Zoom event with former HaFI Residency fellowship holder Shirin Barghnavard about her film “Invisible” (2017). Moderated by Doreen Mende. To register, click here.

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