‘The street isn’t the nicest place but it’s better than home’

What’s it like living as a homeless youth in Germany? Melanie Sevcenko spoke with Maria Speth about her new documentary “9 Leben,” which lets street kids tell their own tales.

‘The street isn’t the nicest place but it’s better than home’
Photo: '9 Leben' by Maria Speth

How do you make a film about street kids without ever showing the street? For Maria Speth, the solution was simple: talking about homelessness and its harsh realities was more effective than resorting to exploitative images.

Not wanting to prod vulnerable states of hurt and neglect, Speth invited her subjects into a studio to share their stories completely separate from their backgrounds.

Her film, “9 Leben” (9 Lives) toggles between the lives of a number of youths, from mid-teens to early twenties, that left their broken families to beg on the streets of Berlin. The documentary, which just won a €4,000 prize at Leipzig’s DOK film festival, is filmed entirely in black and white, with each interview shot against a blank background.

Through intimate close-ups of faces full of metal piercings, full-body portrait shots, and the sorrowful lament of a cello played by a 16-year-old street punk named Za, “9 Leben” offers a clean slate for their emotions. Speth gives no context of her subjects’ lives, only perspectives.

“I wasn’t interested in showing how people act in their normal lives, or the relationship between people and their conditions,” she says. “I was just interested in the people and their personalities, which was the point of fascination for me.”

There are no cut-aways to the streets, to the desolation. Only words and expressions, as we slowly learn their names, their pasts and how they survive.

The majority of the street kids come from families plagued by violence and substance abuse. Almost all of them express a feeling of disassociation from their family, where neglect and estrangement replaces love and security. Some even confess hatred towards their mothers, which is quickly followed by tears and a trembling wince.

“The street isn’t exactly the nicest place, but its better than home,” says Soya, a young girl who takes photographs of the dogs at her youth centre. Recounting how she completed the Way of St. James pilgrimage walk in northern Spain, Soya says she left stones from her home to symbolize a break from her past.

Jessica, the young daughter of an alcoholic, thinks of her mother as nothing more than a “birth machine” who chose to have her in order to receive more welfare money for booze.

Another youth hit the streets and found friends among jazz musicians after witnessing his father’s suicide and his mother’s neglect. He thinks about suicide often, he confesses, and has even tried it to kill himself.

Sunny, as 23-year-old heroin user, says she has built a wall around herself, but is well aware that “sitting behind it is a little girl who is crying.”

None of Speth’s subject were physically driven from their homes; they all chose to leave on their own and “settle” in places like Berlin’s Alexanderplatz square and Zoo train station.

“Berlin is attractive to people who leave their parents and their home. A lot of them decide not to stay in Frankfurt or Hamburg and they go to Berlin instead because it’s known for this phenomenon,” says Speth.

It’s also known for its support system, such as social institutions and youth centres that provide street kids with shelter and health care. Two years ago, while researching homelessness for a feature film screenplay, Speth spent a year building contacts with certain kids who worked the streets and frequented such centres. Making a documentary was not her original plan, but Speth was inspired by the honesty of their stories, along with their fragility.

“Begging is a job. It has its own daily routine just like life at home,” says one former street kid-turned-mother. “The street is not free because you have to depend on what other people have.”

If nothing else, Speth has provided her subjects with freedom – a safe place to peel back a layer of grit and expose their sensitivity by recounting one painful experience at a time.

‘9 Leben’ will show at Austria’s Viennale at the end of the month.

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10 unmissable events in Germany this October

From dazzling light shows to quirky food festivals, October is a jam-packed month in Germany. Here are some of the events you won't want to miss.

10 unmissable events in Germany this October

Oktoberfest, Munich Teresienwiese, September 17th – October 3rd

As possibly the world’s most famous beer festival, Oktoberfest needs no introduction – and for those who didn’t make it to Bavaria in September, there are still a few days left to catch it at the start of the month.

If you make it on the last bank holiday Monday, you can catch an especially rowdy party atmosphere as professional rifle shooters mark the end of the fest. But any other day at the Wiesn is an experience to remember, with live music and singing in all the tents, delicious Bavarian beer and a gigantic funfair for the most adventurous visitors.

And for those who can’t make it down to Bavaria at short notice, the Hofbräuhaus beer halls around the country celebrate their own mini-Oktoberfests with dancing, singing, live music and of course a crisp litre or two of Hofbräu. 

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about Germany’s Oktoberfest

German Unity Day Celebrations, Erfurt Old Town, October 1st – 3rd 

Marking the day when West and East Germany were formally reunited back in 1990 – a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall – Tag der Einheit (Unity Day) is a truly special bank holiday in Germany. 

Each year, a different German city takes it in turn to host the annual Bürgerfest (citizen’s festival) in honour of Germany’s national day. This year, the Thuringian capital of Erfurt will be putting on an action-packed programme of political and cultural events all weekend. To start with, Germany’s five constitutional bodies – the Bundestag, Bundesrat, Federal President, Federal Government and Federal Constitutional Court – will be represented with large information stands on the theme of “Experiencing Politics”. And for those less keen to take a deep dive into the workings of government, each of the 16 states will have the best of their culture and cuisine on display. 

There’ll also be live concerts, performances and a light installation representing German reunification over the weekend, making a visit to scenic Erfurt well worth it. 

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How October 3rd became Germany’s national holiday

Cannstatter Volksfest, Stuttgart, September 23rd – October 9th 

If you want to experience big folk festival but want to steer clear of the tourist crowd in Munich, look no further than Oktoberfest’s Swabian sister, the Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart. 

First launched in 1818, the festival has become a mainstay of the autumn calendar in Baden-Württemberg, and it’s an event that is fiercely proud of its Swabian roots. If you go, you can sample some of the best local beers and wines around, as well as other traditional Swabian delicacies. You can also go on rollercoasters and other fairground rides, hear trumpeting Oompah bands and get dizzy on the world’s largest mobile Ferris wheel. 

Weimar Onion Market, October 7th – 9th

Nobody can say that Germans don’t make the most of their seasonal produce – and Weimar’s historic Zwiebelmarkt (onion market) is no exception.

The Zwiebelmarkt tradition dates back as early as the 15th century, when traders would come to the bustling town of Weimar to sell their wares. Over the years, the onion market days became a major social event where locals would also gather to eat, drink and barter. These days, you’ll still find all things onion-related at the onion market, from arts and crafts to culinary treats. But there’s also a funfair, live music, beer tents and family friendly activities to boot.

Ludwigsburg Pumpkin Festival, August 26th – December 4th

If you’re a fan of all things autumnal, look no further than Ludwigsburg Palace, which becomes home to the world’s largest pumpkin exhibition each year from late August to early December. 

It may sound novel, but a walk around the grounds of the palace will show you that in Ludwigsburg, the pumpkin artists certainly don’t do things by halves. Not only can you see incredible sculptures made from around 450,000 pumpkins in total, but you’ll also see a jaw-dropping 600 different varieties of pumpkin there as well. And if you work up an appetite while soaking up the exhibition, you can also sample some delicious pumpkin-based dishes, from soup to Maultaschen.

Pumpkin exhibition Ludwigsburg

Balu and Mowgli from the Jungle Book at the Ludwigsburg pumpkin exhibition. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Christoph Schmidt

Filmfest Hamburg, 29th September – October 8

Though it tends to get overshadowed by the show-stopper Berlinale, film buffs who can’t wait until February will enjoy a trip to its Hanseatic sibling: Filmfest Hamburg.

Running throughout the first week of October, the Filmfest brings together the best of contemporary cinema from around the world at a range of venues around the city. This year, the festival is also celebrating its 30th anniversary, so there’s bound to be a truly special atmosphere at the event. 

You can find the full programme in English here.

Berlin Festival of Lights, October 7th – 16th

Each year in the middle of August, the familiar sights of the German capital are bathed in colourful light and transformed each evening into weird and wonderful artistic creations.

This year, the theme of the world famous light festival is “Visions of the Future” as artists explore the question: What will our future look like?

The fruits of their labours can be seen around the city each evening from 7-11pm, after it gets dark. Organisers says there will be a big focus on sculptures this year – as well as the usual large installations – as they seek to reduce their electricity use by 75 percent. 

Berlin cathedral at Festival of Lights 2018

Berlin cathedral lit up in colourful lights at the 2018 Festival of Lights. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jens Kalaene

Frankfurt Book Fair, October 19th – 23rd 

The world’s largest book fair is returning to Frankfurt this October with the theme of “translation”, exploring the idea of translating ideas into new languages, mediums and contexts.

Alongside the sprawling trade fair and conference, there will also be a packed schedule of literary events where people can hear reading and talks by popular authors. You can find out all about the exhibitors at the book fair this year and what’s on at the conference in English on the Frankfurt Book Fair website

Deutsches Weinlesefest, September 23rd – October 10th 

The picturesque wine-growing regions of western Germany hold wine festivals throughout the year, but the Wine Harvest Festival – or Weinlesefest – is by far one of the biggest.

Fittingly enough, the festival is held in Neustadt an der Weinstraße, a pretty little town located along the famous Wine Route. For the few weeks of the festival, this sleepy little town hosts an enormous wine parade and around 100,000 wine-loving visitors. Head there on the 7th to see the crowning of this year’s Palatinate Wine Queen and sample some Rhineland wines out of a dubbeglas, a big glass that holds a whopping 50cl of wine. As always, drink responsibly! 

READ ALSO: 10 ways to enjoy autumn like a true German

Halloween at Frankenstein’s Castle, October 21st – November 6th 

If the name of Frankenstein’s Castle sounds familiar to you, it should do: apparently, Mary Shelley, the author of the novel Frankenstein, could well have been inspired by the castle when she visited the nearby town of Gernsheim in 1814. 

These days, however, the castle is known for something slightly different: in 1978, American airmen set up an annual Halloween festival at the castle, and the spooky tradition has continued to this day.

Halloween at Frankenstein Castle

A blood-curdling character at Frankenstein Castle’s Halloween Festival in 2018. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

If you want to enjoy what’s been described as one of the most spectacular Halloween experiences in the world, it’s well worth booking tickets to go up to the castle in late October. In the weeks around Halloween, the 1000-year-old castle is transformed in a phantasmagoria of monsters and evil beings lurking in the shadows.

Every year, the organisers of the festivals pull yet another technical trick out of their sleeve to ensure that visitors are more spooked than ever. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you think you can handle the adrenaline, it’s bound to be an action-packed night. 

READ ALSO: What are Germany’s 8 spookiest places?