“Problema”: fascinating film of ideas

Movie Review

directed by Ralf Schmerberg, Germany

From the over 100 titles presented this year at the 46th Annual Chicago International Film Festival, several were films of interest to progressive viewers.

One of the most intellectually stimulating films that premiered there was “Problema,” a German film that is difficult to categorize. An eight-year project for commercial director Ralf Schmerberg, it’s the filming of an event that gathered some of the world’s great thinkers to help search for answers to some of the world’s toughest questions. The purpose is multifold, to raise consciousness in society about world issues, to develop creative ideas on how to solve problems and to get people involved in making social change. It was narrowed down to exactly 112 world personalities seated around a large “Table of Free Voices” in the Bebelplatz plaza in the heart of Berlin, where about 70 years ago Nazis burned massive piles of books in an attempt to destroy ideas and limit free thought.

In a democratic gesture of open participation, thousands of questions were submitted worldwide online at droppingknowledge.org, and were distilled to 100 of the most relevant issues addressing the world today. In a nine-hour period one sunny day in the summer of 2006, the 112 guests each answered to a camera in front of them, and the best of the replies were edited along with fascinating and provocative historical footage that make this one of the most thought-provoking and stimulating intellectual exercises ever recorded on film.

Not promoting any specific religious or political ideologies, the director and participants challenge the viewer to think and join in a search for answers.

Some of the guests were Americans – Cornell West, Steve Earle and Susan George – who were joined by specially invited thinkers from all corners of the globe. They included international filmmakers Wim Wenders and Udi Aloni, Bianca Jagger, Bolivian water rights activist Oscar Olivera, Arundhati Roy and many other engrossing participants, creating a truly international discussion. But what makes the project, and the film so compelling is that there is really NO debate. Participants speak straight into the camera to the viewer, rather than to each other, creating a totally different effect than would a panel or moderated discussion.

The viewer is drawn into the intrigue of truly well thought out questions, such as: “Why is an Iranian nuclear bomb supposed to be more dangerous than an American, Israeli or French?” “Should we have a right to choose where we live?” “What if all Chinese people want a car?” “Does our wealth depend on the Third World being poor?” What is the new form of colonialism?

In a classroom discussion with young Chicago film students, the German director Schmerberg tells of his successful career in the advertising business that failed to satisfy his urge to address social issues. He eventually filmed a tour with American activist/performer Michael Franti, and became involved in the peace movement interviewing and hanging out with the likes of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Although he was sympathetic to the intentions of the activists he quickly became disillusioned with the repetitive forms of protests, rallies and marches that seemed to characterize the standard procedures of the left. He developed this non-hierarchical project that engages participants equally in a quest for knowledge and answers to the world’s problems, and an attempt to find ways to integrate film in the highest level in the struggle.

Although it could be termed a progressive “antiwar” film, it probably will never be characterized that way. It’s a socially progressive statement that doesn’t need to be identified in that manner. It’s ultimately a film that grabs the viewer in an emotional manner rarely seen in progressive cinema. As the guests answer directly to the camera, the viewer is drawn into the thought process, and the cleverly gathered images burn into the memory.

But the most exciting decision by the director and producers is that the feature film from this multi-million-dollar project will be made available FREE for download at an announced date in December. In the meantime, footage from the film, including every one of the 112 answers to ALL the 100 questions, are available to view on one of the most in-depth websites available on line.

Photo: An image from the “Problema” website, droppingknowledge.org 



Bill Meyer
Bill Meyer

Bill Meyer frequently writes movie reviews for People’s World, often from film festivals. He is a keyboardist at Bill Meyer Music and a current member of the Detroit Federation of Musicians. He lives in Hamtramck, Michigan.