Valentin Thurn • Director
by Christina Raftery
- A portrait of German director Valentin Thurn, focused on his personal documentary approach and his work across environmental activism, intended to "create community"
"They tasted nice", remembers award winning journalist, best-selling author, food fighter and documentary film director Valentin Thurn about the fried locusts. His attempt at the Thai delicacy at a local market marks the beginning of his current film 10 Billion – What’s on your plate? Moments like these illustrate one of Thurn’s films’ most notable characteristics: His personal perspective gives the pieces their structure – fact-oriented journeys along the major current socio-political questions in which he plays the role of the “viewers’ representative”. Symbolic scenes like the fried insect snack create openness towards topics such as the necessary shift of world nutrition, preferably complemented by strong emotions that distinguish his favourite medium, the cinema, from his professional roots in journalism.
“Less is More“, a film about new ways towards a post-growth economy, produced by his Cologne-based company Thurnfilm with director Karin de Miguel Wessendorf, also summarizes his documentary approach. There are no big gestures or aesthetic extravaganzas in Thurn’s films, no anger and absolutely no personality show. Yes, there are Killer-Germs and Milkrebels (2014), Foodsavers (2013), a Whistleblower (2009), an Al Qaeda fighter (I am Al Qaeda, 2006) and many other spectacular human and social phenomena he portrayed and questioned. But Thurn’s analytical background as a scientist and solid journalistic education prevent him from indulging in the sensational. He is more interested in logical progression, in an optimistic way to “start the narrative from the solution.” This was definitely the strategy in 10 Billion, currently running in cinemas, and its predecessor, the highly successful Taste the Waste, which premiered at the Berlinale 2011, was shown at over 30 film festivals worldwide, and won 15 awards. Those two cinematic releases provoked an intense debate about the enormous waste, destruction and distribution of food in industrialized societies.
Born in 1963 in Stuttgart, the urgency to bring important issues onto the screen and into the world brought him to work for German and international broadcasters, followed by awards like the Prix Leonardo, Green Vision and Oekomedia. But soon the traditional role of the TV documentarist who more or less steps back behind his work opened to the bigger power of the image – the cinema. Thurn especially appreciates its compatibility with a whole package of book, online campaign and social movement and the chance to build its own community. “I want to motivate people to find their own way through our time’s social challenges. The film is the emotional starting point and leading medium, but once people are sensitized for a topic, they can immediately find the opportunity and platform to build a network.”
Even before Thurn started his production company in 1994, he founded and presided over several environmental associations and projects, apart from giving lectures at international conferences and workshops. Does he see himself as an activist? Thurn doesn’t fight the title so many critics have given him. He even accepted invitations to talk shows to speak about “campaign journalism” – for him, a contradiction in itself- but he wants to use the term “activist” with respect and prefers to initiate a debate instead of following a defined purpose: “And in the course of the debate, society itself directs its progress and focus”. He also distances himself from the term “objectivity“: “As documentary filmmakers we always have a position and an opinion. Everything from choosing a topic to editing a film is opinion-making, but if this is made clear from the beginning, the viewer can decide to go along or be critical about it”. While presenting Taste the Waste and 10 Billion at international festivals he especially liked the reactions among the younger audience: “They are fed up with the old black-and white thinking and ideological battles of the past. So am I.”
Especially in the last few years, Thurn’s films cover global topics. For him, this has a logical consequence. He has to go where his stories are, work worldwide and present his films to international audiences: “Symbolic places have to get real – at least on screen”. These days, Valentin Thurn’s main aim is to activate the universal human capacity to find new ways of living together: “We want to open up new perspectives on living causes and current issues that have a social relevance. In so doing, we not only want to reveal what is happening in our environment, but furthermore to move something by getting active and showing why it is worth taking action and how this can be done.“ Even if it takes snacking a few fried locusts.