‘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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Where to celebrate Diwali 2022 in Germany

The holiday of Diwali kicks off on Monday. Here's where you can celebrate all around Germany.

Where to celebrate Diwali 2022 in Germany

With over 100,000 Indians in Germany, and over 175,000 people of Indian descent, it’s little wonder that Diwali – the famous five day Hindi festival of lights starting this year on Monday October 24th – is being celebrated all around the Bundesrepublik

READ ALSO: Indians in Germany: Who are they and where do they live?

Even the House of Parliament in Frankfurt is honouring the holiday for the first time with a special reception on October 30th.

Diwali takes its name from the clay lamps or deepa (the event is sometimes called Deepawali) that many Indians light outside their home. With the days shortening in Germany, there’s all the more reason to celebrate light — especially over lively music, traditional dance and authentically spicy Indian cuisine.

We have rounded up some of the top events to celebrate around Germany, both the week of Diwali and afterwards, stretching into mid-November. If you have an additional event to suggest, email us at [email protected]

October 24th in Heidelberg

Happen to be in Heidelberg? Then it’s not too late to head to the Sweet Home Project, which will be cooking up a storm starting at 6:30pm. The menu includes an assortment of Indian sweets and savoury dishes. The collective only asks that participants bring along a candle (and a hearty appetite).

If you miss this event, and are still craving some (really) spicy traditional cuisine, the Firebowl Heidelberg is hosting a Diwali party on October 29th, replete with lots of food and drink and Bollywood beats the whole night. 

October 29th near Frankfurt

For those who fancy a Feier with a full-buffet, this celebration in Dreieich delivers through an all-you-can-eat dinner with traditional fare. Starting at 5pm and stretching into the early hours of the morning, the festive feast includes traditional Bollywood music by Derrick Linco. There’s also a dance party for kids, who receive free admission up to seven years old and €25 up to 14 years. Normal tickets go for €40 per person.

A previous Diwali celebration of traditional dance and music in Dresden. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Sebastian Kahnert

November 4th near Düsseldorf

On November 4th at 6pm, the Deutsch-Indische Gesellschaft Düsseldorf will be hosting a family-friendly party in nearby Ratingen with classical Indian music and dance, a huge dinner and Bollywood music led by DJ SA-ONE. Tickets cost about €40 each, but children under six receive free entry. 

November 5th in Bonn 

The Indian Students Association of Bonn-Cologne will be hosting its biggest event of the year: for €10, event goers can try an array of Indian food, play classic games and tune into cultural performances. 

READ ALSO: Moving from India to Munich changed my life

November 12th in Essen 

Whether you like traditional bhajans or meditative ragas, this concert will capture many of the classic sounds of Indian music with artists such as Anubhab Tabla Ensemble, Debasish Bhattacharjee and Somnath Karmorak taking center stage. The performance starts at 5pm and costs €10. 

November 12th and 13th in Berlin

Indian food fans will get to enjoy 12 stands devoted to Indian cuisine and products, all coming from the local Indian community. The weekend-long festival will also include stand-up comedy from the Desi Vibes Comedy Group. Karaoke fans will also enjoy singing along with the Sounds of India group, followed by an after party on Saturday. All this only costs €2 at the door.