Summer Film Institute


The Summer Film Institute and public film festival are supported by the German Consulate General Boston; the DEFA Foundation, PROGRESS Film GmbH in Germany; and the DEFA Film Library and German & Scandinavian Studies at UMass Amherst.


Blackness and Black Experiences in East Germany

11th Biennial Summer Film Institute

June 11-17, 2023 | UMass Amherst, MA

Organized and hosted by the DEFA Film Library.


Co-directed by Priscilla Layne (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Evan Torner (Univ. of Cincinnati), this year’s weeklong Institute mobilizes Black film theory to explore filmic representations of Blackness, as well as lived experiences of BIPoC in former East Germany. Inspired by questions raised at our Summer Film Institutes since 2007 and at Black German Heritage and Research Association conferences since 2011, the film screenings and collaborative workshops will directly address (East) German notions of civil rights, equity, inclusion and difference—both under and after the end of state socialism. Like prior Summer Film Institutes, the accompanying film festival will be open to the general public and take place at UMass Amherst and Amherst Cinema


This interdisciplinary, residential seminar is intended for researchers, educators and doctoral students interested in race and representation during the Cold War; media studies; Blackness; and transnational exchanges between Europe, Africa and the Americas. A keynote by Katharina Warda, independent scholar and creator of the Dunkeldeutschland (Dark Germany) project, will open the Institute on Sunday, June 11. The week will then alternate between workshops, discussions and film screenings, with participants navigating the material alongside the facilitators. Participants will end by forming interest groups to conduct further research and plan conference panels and publications on institute topics.


The Institute will raise new questions by exploring the inherent tension between media portrayals and the actual experiences of Black Germans, Black Americans and African students and contract workers in East Germany (the GDR). Topics of interest include: 

  • How do the tools of critical race theory and critical whiteness studies help us better understand both the GDR and its cinema?

  • What experiences did BIPoC filmmakers have at the DEFA Studios?

  • How were Black figures represented in GDR fiction films, as opposed to in documentaries?

  • How were key Black American figures—particularly Paul and Eslanda Robeson, Angela Davis, etc.—framed in East German films?

  • How did media in general, and film in particular help afford Black (East) Germans opportunities for self-expression and societal critique?

  • What tensions existed between the GDR as a postcolonial project and the lived experiences of Black people there?

  • How did Black people’s experiences in the GDR intersect with those of international students and contract workers within the Socialist Bloc?

  • What legacy of Black people in East Germany can we see in the media today?


Priscilla Layne is an Associate Professor of German at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Her research focuses on postcolonial studies, gender studies and critical race theory to address topics like representations of Blackness in literature and film, rebellion, and the concept of the Other in science fiction/fantasy. She is the author of White Rebels in Black: German Appropriation of Black Popular Culture (University of Michigan Press, 2018). In addition to her work on representations of Blackness in German culture, she has also published essays on Turkish German culture, translation, punk and film. She has recently co-edited the volume Minority Discourses in Germany Since 1990 (Berghahn Books, 2022) and is currently working on her forthcoming book, Out of this World: Afro-German Afrofuturism. After serving as a Vice President from 2021 to 2021, Layne is now the President of the American Association of Teachers of German through 2023.


Evan Torner is an Associate Professor of German Studies and Film/Media Studies and director of the Game Lab at the University of Cincinnati. He has published several articles on East Germany, critical race theory, DEFA Indianerfilme, science-fiction, transnational genre cinema and game studies. His co-edited volume Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Role-Playing and Participatory Media was published in 2012. His major projects underway include the Handbook of East German Cinema: The DEFA Legacy, co-edited with Henning Wrage, and a monograph entitled A Century and Beyond: Critical Readings of German Science-Fiction Cinema. 


Katharina Warda (Keynote Speaker), Berlin-based independent sociologist, literary scholar and creator of the Dunkeldeutschland (Dark Germany) project, will open the Institute on Sunday, June 11 with her keynote lecture. Warda’s works focus on East Germany, marginalized identities, racism, classism and punk. Since 2021 she has been a member of the advisory board of Kein Schlussstrich!, a nationwide German theater project on the NSU complex. In her project Dunkeldeutschland, she explores the post-reunification period from the social margins and illuminates blind spots in German historiography, based on her own experiences as a Black East German woman in the GDR and after 1989/90. 


Public Film Festival (complete program)

The festival was curated by the Institute co-directors, Priscilla Layne (UNC Chapel Hill), Evan Torner (U of Cincinnati) and the DEFA Film Library. From June 11 – June 16, the Institute’s participants and the public are invited to watch and engage in discussion of 15 feature and documentary films on topics such as race and racialization, experiences of oppression and solidarity with anti-colonial and anti-racist struggles, and the tensions between the ideal of anti-racist solidarity in East German DEFA films and the lived reality of the many Black people or People of Color who lived in East Germany. The films address such questions: How do we reconcile the positive images we have of Paul Robeson visiting the GDR or the East German solidarity campaign for Angela Davis with the negative reality of anti-Black discrimination and racist violence? What experiences did Black and/or non-white filmmakers have at the DEFA Studios? What is the legacy of Black people in the GDR that we see in the media today?


The festival, screened at UMass Amherst and Amherst Cinema, opens with Frank Beyer’s 1983 feature film Taken for a Ride, a commentary on social and racial discrimination. The festival program presents rarely shown East German productions, which were digitized for the festival by the DEFA Foundation in Berlin and subtitled for the first time by the DEFA Film Library. A highlight of the program will be the premiere of the newly restored documentary Paul Robeson: "I'm a Negro. I'm an American." (1989, dir. Kurt Tetzlaff) with new English subtitles created by the DEFA Film Library. Short films directed by students of the East German Film Academy in Potsdam-Babelsberg in the 1970s and 1980, as well as new German productions, including Becoming Black (2019, dir. Ines Johnson-Spain) and The Homes We Carry (2022, dir. Brenda Akele Jorde) will complement the East German film selection. All films will be introduced by the co-directors, participants of the Institute and the DEFA Film Library team.


Please contact our Institute Coordinator Evgeniia Trufanova for any questions. 




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